Durham school combines serious academics with artsy side

Posted September 20, 2012 4:31 p.m. EDT
Updated September 20, 2012 11:34 p.m. EDT

— Durham School of the Arts is a place where putting on a show is as common as a pop quiz, but the combination of arts and academics led Newsweek magazine to rank the school in the top 1 percent of all public high schools in the nation.

DSA, a magnet school in the heart of Durham on North Duke Street northwest of downtown, has about 1,200 students in grades 6-12, and less than a quarter of the students who apply each year are selected in the annual admissions lottery.

"It's such a unique thing in American education that you have a public school where everybody is here because they want to be here," said Principal David Hawks, a former band director.

Students know they're lucky to get into the school, and they say that inspires them to work hard.

"I'm incredibly fortunate, and the opportunities I've had here, I don't think I could have had anywhere else," senior Kellie LeVine said.

"You know what is expected of you, and you just go out and you try to do your best," senior Jacob Jayala said.

LeVine, who loves to sing but eventually plans to go to veterinary school, said DSA's classroom atmosphere is never boring. The artsy nature of the school discourages the usual high school cliques from forming, she said.

"It's really, really unique and really, really great because everybody is so talented and talented in different ways," she said. "DSA has such a different atmosphere than what you would see in a normal high school."

Jayala, who plans to study both music and medicine in college, agreed, saying the range of artistic and academic passions attracted him to the school from the start of sixth grade.

"I know my confidence has been boosted," he said.

DSA has a culture of acceptance, Hawks said, because it attracts students from elementary schools across Durham County.

"You have students here who live in some of the richest neighborhoods and some that live in the poorest neighborhoods, and here they come together, and they are just students," he said.

The school has a seven-period day, compared with four to six periods in most middle and high schools, which allows for more performing and visual arts classes. Students experiment with 10 different concentrations in the early grades and then focus on one or two in high school.

"The arts definitely increase the not just artistic ability of students, but I think it increases the intellectual capacity of students," Hawks said.