Arts Education in CO

Arts Education in CO
October 11, 2016 Shelly Chapple Clements
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“Intrinsic: Access to the arts is intrinsic to a high quality of life.”—Oxford Dictionary

Denver’s dancentric ascent onto the artistic map of the United States is intrinsic to education reform in Colorado. As Denver’s dance scene ramps up to meet the needs of Colorado’s diverse and swelling population, independent and autonomous public schools are prepared to meet the needs of Denver’s most passionate young artists. Alternative learning concepts are popping up all around the traditional brick and mortar environments. The many native artists, as well as those that have chosen the Rocky Mountains as their home, are responding to the current climate of change by innovating education.

Without a doubt, we are living in a time of exciting education reform full of possibilities. Teaching Transformed, by Tharp, Estrada, Dalton, and Yamauchi states, “All school reform has one final common pathway: instructional activity”. The book is used as a graduate level text at UC Denver’s School of Education and Human Development. The authors write, “This book’s purpose is to convey a vision of the ideal classroom for today’s students and academic standards” and “…that if we would just do what we all know to be best, the American classroom would be utterly transformed”. They list the goals of education reform as “Excellence, Fairness, Inclusion, and Harmony”. In this context, excellence is achievement, fairness is equality and cultural compatibility, inclusion is access, and harmony is shared values.

Students don’t have to be visibly struggling to be unfulfilled in their educational environment. Current trends for discovering how engaged students are in their learning include conversation and dynamic relationships. From public schools to magnets to private schools to charters, Colorado educators care and are working around the clock to innovate methods and models that meet the needs of our young people so that their futures will be big, beautiful blank canvases upon which they can paint their possibilities into realities.

Karla Maynard, public educator for 20 years, dance mom, and friend told me that she carried around an idea of what raising kids was going to look like, and it doesn’t look that way. She lives on a block where the kids are going to five different schools and she has had concern about what this could do to a community. As a Douglas County School District employee sending her child to a charter school for dancers and artists, she has chosen to see education reform as a challenge to navigate through rather than a negative obstacle taking funding from public schools. She sees alternative education options co-existing with public schools to serve the students as well as the teachers who hear the call to be leaders of learning that don’t fit within the public school model. She sees communities coming together in new ways.

The message that Karla left me with is that the idea of transitioning into a new education model should not be feared, but rather seen as an opportunity for inclusion. We need to trust that those offering alternative learning models authentically intend to create programs to keep kids engaged and inspired and that they have the resources to do so. It is not a competition, but rather a service mission. One student may have a specific and deep passion like those in our pre-professional dance community who begin honing their craft as early as they can walk while another may be a exploring the myriad paths out there to trying to find his/her passion. Maximizing Colorado’s innovative actions towards education, we can happily say, there is a place where each kid can shine.

Stephen Wynne, Creative Arts Director, and founder of Arts Immersion Nationally Accredited charter schools speaks of, “Using passion for one thing to inspire all things”. The passion that his students share is dance, and the curriculum offered at the three campuses in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Conifer is more cohesive than some university dance programs. Arts Immersion is integrating academics with skills such as aesthetics, appreciation, interpretation, structure, boundaries, and business. It is teaching students how to seize learning opportunities inside and outside of the school walls.

The learning model at Arts Immersion is based on mutual respect and self-advocacy in terms of recognizing the need for help and learning how to ask for it and accept it. Mr. Wynne boasts a hand-picked faculty of experienced and degree holding professional artists with high standards. He believes that the artist’s capacity for survival elevates him/her to walk the extra mile and open the extra door for students. The battles these educators have fought as professional artists enables them to deliver education in a not-one-size-fits-all package. At Arts Immersion, each student’s story is valuable and each student gets the chance to tell his/her story in order to reach commonality, harmony.

Vince Bertram, President and CEO of Project Lead The Way, Inc. wrote a blog for the Huffington Post entitled “STEM or STEAM? We’re Missing The Point”. The STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) or STREAM (adding reading to the acronym), or STEMM (adding music) debate is a trending conversation in our country right now. Bertram makes the poignant point that it’s not about the acronym, but rather the relevancy of the learning. He advocates that this particular education model is about showing students how technical concepts and hands-on projects relate to real-world situations.

There is a stigma that STEM disregards and even dismisses the arts. But the intention and the reality beyond the hype is that STEM connects everything whether it is arts, science, sports, tech, or agriculture. Bertram states, “STEM isn’t simply the subjects in the acronym. It’s an engaging and exciting way of teaching and learning”. It’s about achieving excellence for each student.

The Denver Metro area and beyond has Denver School for the Arts, Parker Performing Arts, Arts Immersion, Soar, Colorado Academy, The Goddard School, Global Village Academy, Denver Center for International Studies, Noel Community Arts School and hundreds of other public and alternative educational organizations working to find models that support fairness, excellence, inclusion, and harmony. A handful of these schools are catering specifically to the young, passionate artists that will carry on the history and legacy of art in this country ensuring that we have access to a high quality of life. Charter and magnet schools are within the public domain and therefore, tuition free. Parents and students don’t settle for the traditional if the alternative better meets their needs.


Shelly Chapple Clements was raised in rural Pennsylvania, in Amish Country. She was drawn to the city of Pittsburgh through dance at the young age of 9 and never looked back. Her dance education took her from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, to the National Academy of Arts in Champagne-Urbana, IL, Shelly returned east and graduated from the renowned Pittsburgh High School for Creative and Performing Arts after which she enjoyed a professional modern dance career in San Francisco from 1990-2002. She is a master instructor for young dancers and currently teaches ballet in Littleton and Highlands Ranch and is the Artistic Director of Youth Programs for DAMAGEDANCE. Shelly has been a Colorado resident since 2002 and holds Bachelor’s Degrees in Spanish Interpretation and Translation, Hispanic Literature, and Theatre Dance from Colorado Mesa University, and attended the master’s program at the School of Education and Human Development at University of Colorado Denver. Her passion for writing gives voice to the dancer who speaks not on the stage.

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