Throughout the halls at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, the walls do talk.
Outside of vocal teacher Sarah Kaufman’s and art teacher Susan Yingling’s classrooms, timelines with photos, programs and artwork provide a rich retrospective of the many accomplishments their students have achieved in the 20 years they’ve each been teaching at Miller South. These chronicles begin the year the school opened, in 1993, starting outside Kaufman’s room with a composite photo, decorated with musical motifs, showing the 21 teachers who opened the new school’s doors that year.
Among the teachers pictured are Yingling and Kaufman, then named Sarah Bell. Both will retire this school year after two decades of instructing children in fourth through eighth grades at the arts school. Band teacher Eric Langreder, drama teacher Wendy Duke and fifth-grade science teacher Laura Feltman, who also have taught at Miller South since the beginning, will continue.
Yingling and Kaufman’s tenure will end just as the school celebrates its 20th anniversary with an alumni reunion Feb. 23 at the school. The party will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a reception in the dining room for alumni, current and former staff and their families, and continue at 7 p.m. with student performances in the Margo Snider Auditorium, named after the school’s first principal. Snider will speak at the event.
More than 200 students will perform, including the show choir, a dance class, seventh- and eighth-grade string orchestra, drama students, concert band, keyboard players and the steel drum band. Amy Heffernan’s fourth-grade class will sing The Miller South Song, which Kaufman wrote for the first staff talent show in 1997, and current and alumni staff will sing Seasons of Love.
The performances are open to the public. The evening also will include student art exhibits and a “special walk- down-memory-lane video,” Duke said.
In the early years, the staff performed Star Spectaculars for the students.
Yingling and Kaufman chuckled as they reminisced recently, looking at a pink poster designed by Yingling that featured the female teachers’ heads on Rockettes-type chorus line bodies. That was the same year dance teacher Mark Smith split his pants while executing a kick.
Kaufman’s timeline provides a history of the unique performance opportunities vocal students have had at Miller South, from the show choir singing with the Vienna Boys Choir in Vienna in 2003, to singing and recording with the Barenaked Ladies in a 2004 holiday show at the Akron Civic Theatre.
Kaufman said she is proud that her show choirs have traveled to Europe every other year since 2000, touring and performing everywhere from Italy to Czechoslovakia.
Other points of pride are the elaborate Big Shows her four choirs put on each spring as well their many first-place awards in regional competitions, including the Fox 8 Glee competition in Cleveland in 2011.
Every year, Kaufman is at the piano for all her choir performances. But in an early Staff Spectacular program designed by Yingling, she’s pictured as a diva in a flowing gown at the microphone.
“We love teaching here. I’ll tell you that,” Kaufman said.
She is on the search committee for her replacement, and says someone must be hired before the end of the year to conduct show choir auditions for next year. So what are the job requirements?
“Sleep is not on it,” she said of the list. “They have to love teaching, love music and love children.”
Yingling will retire at the end of the month. For her replacement, “I want someone who will love this job as much as I do,” she said.
In Miller South’s first year, the Art Honor Society sold artwork to buy paint to brighten up the drab walls at Miller South, formerly South High School. The hall now features eight vibrant colors in blocks that grow progressively lighter.
Yingling’s art timeline chronicles everything from a rooftop tree mural her students designed at Akron Children’s Hospital in 1993, to a floral sculpture recycled from light bulbs from the old Beacon Journal clock tower. She laughed as she recalled an early performance art piece she created with students doing “flashlight drawings” on a blackened stage with colored acetate covering the flashlights. The History of Art performance was a collaboration with the strings players, led by former teacher Annette Nicoloff.
“It was in my young and weird days, I guess,” Yingling said.
Yingling’s art students have left their mark outside of Akron: In 1997, her seventh-graders’ Akron-centric banner won a nationwide contest tied to the opening of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. And just last year, the art students created a big collage of Akron landmarks to send with Kaufman and her show choir to Chemnitz, Germany, Akron’s sister city.
In Miller South’s first year, the fourth-grade class had 17 students and a total of 242 enrolled in the school. Today, the student body has swelled to 502, with Principal Dawn Wilson at the helm.
Margo Snider, Miller South’s first principal who served for 11 years, said she was commissioned by then Superintendent Terry Grier to open the doors of the arts magnet school, which was originally funded by a three-year federal grant. At the time, she was also head of the music department for the school district.
By 1995, she also became the coordinator of the Visual and Performing Arts program at Firestone High School, which evolved as a result of Miller South’s success.
In the beginning, the federal grant funded Miller South’s keyboard lab, dance studio, risers and art supplies.
“We had enough money that we could maintain the salaries of the teachers,” Snider said. The school also received a small budget from the district, and soon, booster clubs for art, drama and vocal were formed.
Nobody knew whether the school would continue after the grant money ran out. But enrollment grew and the Akron school district decided to keep the school going after the three-year funding ended.
“It was a hidden gem that a lot of people didn’t know about” the first several years, Snider said.
She said Miller South teachers work on a contract that’s two weeks longer than their counterparts at other Akron schools: The extra time is spent in workshops, where the teachers learn how to integrate arts education into the core academic classes.
For example, Snider remembers in 2004 when math teacher Julie DeMangeont had her sixth-grade kids design a quilt using math. The quilt, which featured an image of Snider, was her going-away present.
This year, sixth-grade science teacher Katherine Buckley had small groups in her classes write new lyrics to familiar songs and perform them as a mnemonic to remember the rock cycle for igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.
Power of the arts
Snider said helping students develop creativity through the arts is crucial for them as they enter the 21st century job market. Academically, the school has been rated Excellent or Excellent with Distinction by the state since 2002-03.
“I knew what the power of the arts could do for kids,” said Snider, a clarinetist and pianist since childhood. “That was exciting to work with a group of people who had a love for the arts and knew what the arts could do for kids.”
Snider worked as executive director at the Akron Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2009 and now serves as part-time principal for Falcon Academy of the Creative Arts in Portage County.
Another thing that makes Miller South special, teachers say, is the amount of time arts teachers have with their students. According to Langreder, most fifth-grade beginning bands meet 20 minutes a week. But at Miller South, the fifth-graders meet three times a week for 40 minutes, and sixth- through eighth-graders meet daily.
Miller South’s longer school day means students can fit in two periods of arts instruction. Students audition for interest areas including vocal, art, drama, dance and instrumental, yet fourth- and fifth-graders get to pursue additional arts interests in regular exploratory classes that give them a taste of other genres. As a result, half the student body is active playing in either band or orchestral groups, in addition to their primary arts focus.
“When you make school exciting for kids … it just creates a whole different learning environment,” Snider said. “It just gave you a great sense of pride to see what they could accomplish when they were pushed.”
Staff writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.