Can you imagine what it would be like to go to a school where you get to spend a good chunk of time each week immersed in dance and other performing arts? A school where even your maths teacher serves you up imaginative lessons? A school that cares about who you are as an individual, rather than how you perform on standardized test scores?
One such school is the Australian Performing Arts Grammar School (APGS) in Glebe in NSW. Emblazoned proudly across its website homepage is their core philosophy of “empowering creativity”.
“We see each student as an individual and strive to extend, nurture and encourage them to grow beyond what they believe they are right now,” explains Eunice Chung Lee, assistant principal at APGS. “We focus on how they can explore their creative abilities in a multifaceted way, not just one performing arts discipline.”
She elaborates, “We believe that every human being is creative and has an imagination. We look beyond just grades to take them on a journey and see them leave us having become an even better human being. The creative arts build self-confidence, resilience and help them develop core values about themselves and their identity. Exposing students to different ways of being creative allows them to discover who they are themselves.”
Performing arts is the heart of the school
Performing arts are the bread and butter for APGS, and the school is committed to ensuring its students have access to a range of arts subjects because they know that the arts offer valuable skills transferable to other areas of their lives.
“Kids who are exposed to performance learn to collaborate with other artists, work to deadlines and develop community,” Chung Lee says. “The kids are doing it so often here that it forces them out of what they are comfortable in, and stretches them. They feel safe, and are empowered to be more confident, resilient and responsible.”
She goes on, “As an educator myself, I’m constantly looking to engage and employ teachers who are like-minded and appreciate and respect our vision. There is no point in having a maths teacher who doesn’t understand or respect the creative mind. We look for teachers who can integrate imagination in delivery of academic lessons.”
Students come in with two streams, although some take three or four, Chung Lee explains. “A student may see themselves as just a dancer, for example, but once they’re here, they realise they’d like to try something like drama. Many students who transfer here from other high schools come because of our commitment to offering all four creative arts for year 12. Many transfer in years nine or 10 because they realise their school won’t offer, say, dance, at year 12 level. Sadly, many schools have to go with what the majority wants. It comes down to numbers. If they don’t have enough students taking that course, they cull it.”
APGS is relatively small, with around 100 students, and fairly young, starting out in 2012. The school’s focus is on quality rather than quantity.
“We started at the Broadway location with 43 students, so we’ve doubled that number,” Chung Lee says. “But we don’t want to grow larger than about 250-300 students. Next year, we plan to have a bigger intake in year seven, but we are also getting quite a lot of interest and traction for years nine and 10. I think this is because it takes awhile for teenagers to know where their interests lie.”
Academic rigour delivered creatively
The school’s focus on creativity and the performing arts doesn’t mean that the academic subjects are neglected, though.
“We provide rigour and excellence in both academic and performing arts,” Chung Lee stresses. “So students can come to this school and complete years seven to 12, and at the same time have access to industry professionals in all four creative arts – drama, art, music and dance.”
She adds, “The academic curriculum is delivered in a creative manner, as well as integrating with the performing arts. Students complete academic studies across three-and-a-half days, and for one-and-a-half days, they gain access to different skills, techniques and company-based classes. It enhances their skill and technique in their chosen craft, and they can dabble in a totally new area as well.”
The performing arts section of the program at APGS is vertical, meaning it’s based on the student’s level of ability, as opposed to age.
“We schedule classes at beginner and intermediate level, as well as advanced, so we’re able to capture student interest and create a nurturing and safe environment to step into something like acting for screen if that’s what they want to give a go,” Chung Lee explains. “We ensure these tailored skill-based classes aren’t isolated from what they need to cover in their academic learning. For example, in year 11 and 12 dance, they need to be able to choreograph pieces, work on their major projects, have a sense of being able to do a self-devised work, and have basic skills in different dance styles. So a student interested in year 11 and 12 HSC dance can undertake these skills-based classes to supplement that learning.”
Nurturing emotional well-being
One of the special aspects of APGS is the school’s focus on the emotional well-being of its students, and its belief that so-called “softer” qualities like self-respect and confidence are the cornerstone for success.
“The most important thing is they have self-respect,” stresses Chung Lee. “It’s quite common for young people to experience self-doubt and anxiety, and to have negative thoughts about themselves. To succeed, someone needs to have respect for themselves, what they do and their identity. Then they can see where they can offer opportunities. I think it’s important that students commence with that core value; it sounds corny, but it’s important that they can say, ‘I do love myself, and I think I’m really special.’”
The way the school fosters independence and self-esteem is woven into everything it does.
“It starts with the classroom environment, and the relationships we encourage students to have with one another,” Chung Lee says. “Because there is that sense of commonality or likemindedness, they feel that automatic connection, because they know we respect creativity and people who are creative.”
Learning from industry professionals
The teachers who work with the students at APGS include a core of regular teachers, plus industry professionals, to expose the students to different approaches and techniques.
“Today, we had Shaun Parker and Company come in and do a big incursion into dance for year seven to 12,” Chung Lee says. “We bring in artists who can instill knowledge and link it back to academic dance as well. This term, we’ll have another specialist come in and talk about preparing year 11 student for group performance and individual performance for HSC in drama.”
Many of the students also do external training, for example through Australian Theatre for Young People, the National Institute of Dramatic Arts and Brent Street Performing Arts.
“What we offer here is not meant to replace their existing training outside of school but to expose them to different techniques,” explains Chung Lee. “We don’t replicate what they do outside of school. Our teachers are given specific outcomes to achieve in the school setting, which is quite different to what they get at their other studios. We promote, encourage and wholeheartedly support them to go wherever they wish, because it will just add on for them to give hem experience and exposure.”
A lasting impact
When students graduate from APGS, the relationship doesn’t end there.
“I always tell the kids they are welcome to come here and to visit,” Chung Lee assures. “We don’t cut ties. The door is open if you need anything, need a reference letter, and you are always welcome to reconnect.”
She goes on, “Education for every individual has such a huge impact on one’s life. Students spend about 65 percent of their week at school and a good portion of their life learning something or being associated with a learning institution. As humans, we are constantly engaged in some kind of learning. As an education provider, we need to walk the walk and demonstrate what we keep announcing to everyone. I do believe we have a responsibility to make a positive impact on the lives of these kids. These are permanent memories. They don’t disappear after awhile. We are shaping their future and their life. It’s why I’m passionate about education. It’s a life-changing occupation. I want to live my life having made an impact on at least one other life.”
The next round of auditions to attend Australian Performing Arts Grammar School will be held in September. Apply online at www.apgs.nsw.edu.au. You are also welcome to book to attend an open morning to see the school in action. The next open mornings will be on Tuesday 4 September and Friday 2 November, 9-10:30am.
By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.