The Durham School of the Arts recently joined the ranks of the top high schools in the nation, according to Newsweek.
With a focus on melding the arts with traditional academia, DSA was ranked 381 in the news magazine’s latest list of the top 500 high schools in the nation. The Newsweek rankings, which have been conducted for more than a decade, gauge how well high schools prepare their students for college. DSA’s position in the top one percentile of the nation’s high schools reaffirms the institution’s unique and valuable approach to education, said DSA Principal David Hawks.
“Our success is due to a combination of our teachers and staff, students that work very hard and set goals for themselves, very supportive parents and a supportive school system that allows us to have a special school like this,” Hawks said.
DSA is a magnet school with a student population of 1,370 that receives applications from students throughout the city of Durham. Running from grades six through 12, the school’s mission is to provide a rigorous educational program that emphasizes the visual and performing arts.
Schools were evaluated using a revamped gauging system, which assessed graduation rates, college matriculation rates, Advanced Placement tests taken per graduate, among other criteria.
This year, 25 North Carolina high schools were ranked as the top 500 high school in the nation.
Despite its clear success in standardized testing, DSA regards such exams as the minimum requirement of understanding, Hawks said, adding that teachers and faculty set their standards for students much higher.
“We do well on the subject tests because we teach our students the material and how to think critically,” he said.
Incorporating art and emphasizing the importance of ownership of one’s work is key in training DSA’s students to think critically, said Rodney Berry, assistant principal for sixth and seventh grade and a former art teacher at DSA.
“In education now, everyone is getting into inquiry-based learning,” Berry said. “Art is a great way of getting kids to flex those kinds of muscles.”
Whereas most high schools have six class periods a day, DSA is structured around seven, allowing students the opportunity to take art classes without sacrificing more traditional academic studies. Students are required to choose among the 10 offered arts concentrations, including band, theatre, dance and commercial and artistic technologies.
Berry added that the required art concentrations makes students more invested in their learning, resulting in them performing better overall.
“I know my confidence has been boosted,” senior Jacob Jayala said in an interview with WRAL.
DSA is also unique in the diversity and sheer numbers of students that apply each year. This past year, the institution received 1,947 applications for grades six through 12, only 300 of which were accepted via a lottery system, Hawks said.
The competitiveness contributes to the passionate environment at DSA, he added, saying that all students who attend demonstrated their dedication to learning through the application process.
“It’s really, really unique and really, really great because everybody is so talented and talented in different ways,” senior Kellie LeVine said in an interview with WRAL. “DSA has such a different atmosphere than what you would see in a normal high school.”
Accepted students represent Durham’s socioeconomic and racial diversity, Hawks added, noting that the differences in backgrounds empower the students.
“In class, students speak up and advocate for their views no matter where they come from,” he said. “Everybody feel like they have a voice…. They have a vision for themselves.”