By Jay Steiger
Once upon a time, two teachers had a vision of a school in La Mesa dedicated to building the academic and creative potential for every child. That vision became reality when the La Mesa Arts Academy (LMAAC) opened its doors in August 2014. LMAAC was a bold educational experiment within the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, an experiment which has seen notable success and the highest school site enrollment within the district. The academy has been visited by educational leaders and elected officials, including County Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Assemblywoman Dr. Shirley Weber.
LMAAC was the brainchild of La Mesa-Spring Valley teachers Jon Hayman and Dr. Mark Arapostathis. Dr. A, as he is more popularly called, is also the current mayor of La Mesa. Hayman and Arapostathis began planning the school over 16 years ago and the design was revised and improved through research and input from respected district arts teachers. Prior to the great recession, a summer school pilot program was tested, but budget issues and curriculum requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program delayed additional progress. Finally, in 2013, the district school board formally approved the creation of the academy, and it opened in August 2014 on the site of the former La Mesa Middle School.
LMAAC is a fourth-through-eighth-grade school which incorporates both specialized arts classes — such as orchestra, jazz band, hip-hop dance — and theater, along with core academic studies.
Following on the success of LMAAC, the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District opened the La Presa STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) Academy in August 2015, and will see the Spring Valley Academy (which has applied for accreditation as an International Baccalaureate school) and a kindergarten-to-third-grade literacy academy at Kempton Elementary open in August 2016.
Arapostathis has repeatedly noted that LMAAC is not designed to graduate the next “American Idol” performers, but rather to allow children to grow in their individual abilities, confidence, and knowledge.
Commenting on the first two years of this school, Principal Beth Thomas said that the surprise is not the overall success of the school, but rather how quickly the school has evolved. She said that it is not a school that waits for a new year to change. They will change, if needed, on a daily basis and that the driving force for progress comes from parent input, the PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association), staff, and even students.
“Our main goal has always been about developing leadership and character in children and a big part of that process is teaching them how to articulate and express themselves,” Thomas said.
Hayman said that the school conducts regular tours for prospective parents and the students are encouraged to talk with the visitors.
“We don’t prep the children, they speak from the heart and are naturally skilled at communicating their observations,” he said.
Thomas also said that the staff demands high achievement from the students. They know that if they are not performing in their academic classes, they will not be able to perform on stage. Students learn the essential lesson that hard work will pay off and it is considered a core school value to ensure that children are thinking as self-directed and self-reflective learners.
Thomas gave high praise to her staff for consistently supporting all students and the central visions of LMAAC. She said that keeping such a large staff motivated and coordinated can be a challenge but they all work together and draw on a collective creativity to overcome issues. She also expressed her gratitude to both district and other school sites’ staff for their essential contributions to the success of LMAAC. District Superintendent Brian Marshall has been a longtime supporter of the planning for the school and has repeatedly said how thrilled he is with their achievements.
Community engagement is one of the key goals of the academy. Music students work in collaboration with Helix High School and the East County Youth Symphony, under the direction of Alexandra Keegan. A high point came this year with the performance of “Grease,” coordinated through a partnership with the Arms Wide Open production company, by special-needs students at LMAAC.
“These children, when given a little encouragement and a lot of love will give an amazing, epic performance,” Thomas said.
Hayman said that this project enabled development of talent in students that sometimes are overlooked.
“This is not about them being special needs, but special individuals,” he said. “The changes we have seen in these children are amazing.”
While giving high praise to the arts classes, Thomas gave equal credit to academics. A blending of arts and academics was always a central component of the school’s vision and to that end they contracted with professional developers to engage both arts and academic subject teachers to enhance curriculum standards for visual and performing arts and fully incorporate arts themes into core subject instruction.
During this school year, LMAAC plans to have paired arts and academic instructional development teams to continue this process. Arapostathis said that that LMAAC has gained a reputation in East County for excellence in both the performing arts and academic rigor.
—Jay Steiger is a parent and youth sports and school volunteer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.