Should Your Child Go to an Arts High School?

Arts high schools provide students with the opportunity to explore their passions while getting a traditional education. Read on to learn about structures and outcomes of these schools.

Gabriello Lewis was four years old when he fell in love with the violin music that his mom, a classical music devotee, was listening to on the radio.

That Christmas, he asked Santa Claus for this instrument, and soon after, started violin lessons. After years of study and hours of practice, the gifted young musician was ready for high school. At a summer music camp, he learned about the Special Music School in New York City, which is the only public K–12 school in the city with music as the main focus of the curriculum.

After auditioning for a spot in the school, Gabriello was accepted and now lives with a host family in New York City while he attends the program during the school year. Summers are spent in Vermont, his home state. Gabriello says he knows that the Special Music School is where he was meant to be.

"I want to become a violin soloist,” says Gabriello, who practices violin about four hours every day. “I live through music, and my friends tell me I eat, sleep, and breathe music."

Learn more about the benefits of an arts education.

Public and Private Arts High School

Gabriello is one of thousands of students who attend arts high schools, where students immerse themselves in one or more of the visual or performing arts while also receiving instruction in all the core academic subjects. There are approximately 3,000 self-proclaimed arts high schools in the United States, says Kristy Callaway, executive director of the Arts Schools Network, although her organization counts just about 200 of these schools as members.

The areas in which students typically specialize are dance, music, theater, and visual arts, she explains, with many subspecialties in each. Under the heading of dance, for example, students may choose ballet, modern, tap, or African. "Arts high schools also may offer ancillary majors such as gaming design, animation, or graphics design,” Callaway says.

Tuition at these schools can range from free (if it’s a public school) to thousands of dollars annually at the most elite residential private schools. Among the top public arts high schools, Callaway says, are Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts in New York City (Jennifer Aniston and Amy Ryan are alumnae), Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, California (a public charter school), the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, and the Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas (Edie Brickell, Erykah Badu, and Norah Jones are alumnae).

The Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts and the Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Michigan, are two prestigious private arts high schools. At the former, boarding tuition is $53,000 per year. Interlochen Arts Academy charges $55,000 for boarding students and $34,660 for day students each year. Both schools offer financial aid for paying school tuition to qualified students.

The majority of arts high schools are in urban areas, Gaskill says. "They tend to reflect the demographics of the urban school district, and arts high schools tend to have the highest high school graduation rates," she says.

If you’re thinking of applying to an arts high school, you may not have a lot of options when it comes to environment since they are generally located in urban areas. "You don’t always have several options, and it really depends on where you live," Callaway says. "My advice is to go visit. See if you like the culture of the school. Some are urban and edgy, while others are more conservative. But if your child shows an interest, start thinking about it soon."

The Path to College

Admissions to arts high schools tend to be very competitive. For example, at Fiorello H. Laguardia High School, of the 9,000 students that applied, only 664 were admitted last year. The Orange Country School of the Arts accepts 500 students out of the 2,000 applicants. For those who are accepted, admission to an arts high school can be a dream come true as they are able to pursue their passion while still getting a traditional education.

"The whole point of an arts high school is to give kids who have the talent, training, and interest the opportunity to excel in the subject they are good at, whether this is dance or violin," Kontos says. "And the great thing about an arts high school is that kids who excel at the arts don’t have to sacrifice academic work. They can get a full range of essential course offerings."

Arts high school students usually go on to college, according to Sally Gaskill, director of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), an online survey, data management, and institutional improvement system whose purpose is to enhance the impact of an arts school education. "The vast majority go on to college," she says. "I do know that arts high school graduates are among the most prestigious students in terms of recruitment by undergraduate institutions because they have such intensive training." Not only is their training very intensive, she says, but once they are in an arts high school, "They are very engaged."

Deandre Desir, a freshman at the Special Music School, loves all his classes and is happy to practice his tuba for two hours a day during the week and four hours on weekend days.

"As for college, right now I am looking at both Yale and Juilliard," he says. "I know that I want to be a professional tuba player, but I am definitely going to go to college."

If you’re considering an arts college, have a laugh about the 18 signs you graduated from an arts college.

Beyond College

So, how do arts high school graduates who go on to college fare after that? According to SNAAP’s data, some 80 percent of recent arts graduates (who earned either an undergraduate or graduate level degree) reported that they found a first job that was either closely or somewhat related to their arts education. In the same SNAAP survey, graduates’ job satisfaction was high: 75 percent of recent arts school alumni indicated that they were satisfied with the job in which they spent the majority of their time.

Whether it’s making music or lighting up the stage as a dancer, arts school students are doing what they love and what they excel at — and many developed proficiency in their chosen field by attending an arts high school.

Kontos sums it up like this: "Attending an arts high school really can be a remarkable cultural experience."

Interested in finding the right school for your child? Head to Noodle’s search to check out the private, charter, and public schools in your area.

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