Central Gwinnett High School Principal Shane Orr views the Lawrenceville-based school’s new School of the Arts as kind of like being in a certain 1980’s TV show about performing arts students — but there’s no stick-wielding Debbie Allen around to demand better dancing.
The “school-within-a-school” performing arts school will officially open its doors at Central Gwinnett High School when the 2021-2022 school year begins Aug. 4. The arts-centered school is a partnership between Gwinnett County Public Schools, the city of Lawrenceville and the Aurora Theatre to teach students, in a professional-style setting, how to dance, play an instrument, act, paint or even make pottery.
“Not to date myself, but it’s like ‘Fame’ — the old TV show ‘Fame’ is very similar to that,” Orr said.
The School of the Arts at Central Gwinnett has been a long-time coming and is tied to the burgeoning arts community in Lawrenceville.
The city has adopted a more arts-centric philosophy in recent years, building off of its status as the Aurora Theatre’s home. It is building a new performing arts center on the Lawrenceville Square that will serve as an expansion of the Aurora, and the School of the Arts is a way to help develop that next generation of artists in the Lawrenceville area.
“The superintendent called me to his office about three years ago and let me know that we were going to be building a school-within-a-school on Central Gwinnett’s campus and it was going to be a focus on the arts and the performing arts,” Orr said.
A team made up of principals and other district officials, as well as experts in the arts, was put together to tour schools and come up with a plan for Central Gwinnett’s School of the Arts. The team visited arts-centered schools in Georgia, elsewhere in the southeast and in other parts of the U.S. to see what they were doing.
“So, we spent quite a bit of time visiting schools that are doing these schools for the arts really well,” Orr said. “We visited Augusta, we visited South Carolina, we visited the Chicago School of the Arts two times, we visited Booker T. Washington in Dallas a couple of times as well and really since that time, we’ve been working on what do we want or student experience to be at this School of the Arts and how is it going to be different from anything that’s out there.”
The city contributed about $5 million to help develop the 30,000-square-foot expansion at Central Gwinnett that houses School of the Arts, while Aurora officials are working with the schools on performing instruction and opportunities — including a show that Orr said is expected to be staged in August.
As part of the expansion, Central Gwinnett’s existing 550-seat theater got an upgrade to house professional-level production equipment, such as lighting and sound equipment. There are also new band, orchestra, chorus and art classrooms, as well as practice rooms, ensemble rooms, a dark room for photography, a pottery and ceramics room, a dance studio and a blackbox theater in the expansion.
“(The city’s involvement) is unique with a school addition, but with the arts flourishing in downtown Lawrenceville and with the revitalization efforts in Lawrenceville and with Central Gwinnett serving the students of the city of Lawrenceville, it was just the right time and the right partnership so we’re thankful to have that partnership,” Orr said.
Although it is located within Central Gwinnett High School — and graduates of it will receive Central Gwinnett diplomas although they will have a chance to earn a fine arts seal on the diploma — it is open to students from across Gwinnett County. That includes those beyond Gwinnett’s borders. Many of the initial students, however, are from the Lawrenceville area, according to Orr.
It will only have ninth- and 10th-graders in its first year and gradually add 11th- and 12th-graders as the initial students grow older.
“We are at about 350 students total,” Orr said. “About 180 of those students are current Central Gwinnett cluster students — so they’re not all from outside Central Gwinnett.”
There are two tracks that students in the School of the Arts can follow. One is the conservatory program, where students have to audition — or show their work to a team of judges if they are visual arts and design students — to get in and then spend the first couple of hours in their core classes and then spend the rest of their day, from mid-morning onward, in their arts classes.
The other is the Fellows program, where they take core classes at Central Gwinnett throughout the day, but take arts-related electives trough the School of the Arts.
The students are also getting what Orr pitched as professional-level instruction from people who have worked in the arts industry. some of the teachers came directly from the arts industry while others may have gone into teaching before now, but all of the instructors have worked in the industry at some point in their careers.
“The students will not only receive a high level industry-certified level of teaching, but they will also, if they’re good enough, earn opportunities to earn industry credits,” Orr said. “For example, our partnership with the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville. Our staff here at Central is working closely with the staff at the Aurora and the expectation is that we want to see our students on Aurora’s stage. We want to see Aurora staff working with our students.
“Those are the type of industry partnerships that we are forming and that our students are going to have an opportunity to take advantage of.”
And, Central Gwinnett officials got a sneak preview of what they can expect from their students this summer. The school hosted a one-week intensive where more than 200 of the students expected to be at the School of the Arts this year came together to meet their teachers and stage performances.
There were bands that formed, dancers who learned new dances as a group and vocalists who learned numbers to put on for a show that was held at the end of that week.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” Orr said. “The students only had about two and a half days to prepare their showcase and we had three different bands that formed, we had our musical theatre students perform two different numbers, the dance students also performed, our choral department performed two different numbers.
“For these students just meeting each other for the first time and meeting their teachers for the first time, they were able to produce something pretty awesome.”
In a way, Central Gwinnett was playing out “Fame” in real life. Students learning how to, as the song goes, live forever and fly.