Wilson Elementary transitions from struggling inner-city to accomplished arts school 

On a recent Tuesday, a small crowd gathered to mark the groundbreaking of MAPS for Kids construction at Wilson Elementary, 2215 N. Walker. It was the culmination of years of work to turn the school into a successful, vibrant core of the surrounding community.


When Beverly Story became principal at Wilson in 1992, the school was struggling. It was almost four years into her tenure before she started seeing a real difference in community involvement and improved test scores.

"At first, when you're trying to turn a school around, there is just so much that needs to happen and not enough time," Story said.

Getting parents and the surrounding community involved was one of those crucial first steps. At her first Parent Teacher Association meeting, just four people showed up.

"Principalship 101 is to involve parents," she said, "give them a role, make them a viable part of what's going on."

To get that needed involvement, Story went to the local neighborhood association meetings, where she made her case: If they wanted a vibrant community, they needed a successful school.

One of those neighborhood associations, Heritage Hills, stepped up, holding a series of fund-raisers in the late '90s to help the school adapt to two new programs aimed at turning the school around: Arts Integration and Partners in Education.

In 1998, Wilson was designated the district's " and state's " first school for Arts Integration, an alternative teaching method that utilizes the arts in every subject. Just a year later, the school joined the Partners in Education Program, a professional development series offered through the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Cheryl Halaoui, a third grade teacher at Wilson since 1994, said the switch was transformative.

"I see happier staff and happier kids," Halaoui said. "We work together more as a staff."

Going from the traditional method of lecture followed by worksheet can be challenging, but the positive effects are undeniable. Halaoui said the kids are up and moving; they work in groups and collaborate. One thing they're not, she said, is silent.

"I call it controlled chaos," she said.

Neal Kellogg, a vocal and instrument teacher, joined the Wilson staff four years ago.

"You can feel the positive environment when you walk in," he said of the two-story school, which is decorated with bright murals. He said Arts Integration is different from hitching, or adding an arts lesson at the end of a standard lesson. He used the example of fractions, which can be taught using the notes of the musical scale.

"I do teach arts, but I feel I give them the tools to learn in the classroom, too," Kellogg said.

It's not just the curriculum that is dedicated to the arts. When MAPS for Kids passed in 2001, the Heritage Hills neighborhood committee that had raised funds in the '90s transitioned into a nonprofit organization to continue its arts fund-raising for the physical changes to the school.

That new group, Wilson Arts Inc., started with four Heritage Hills families: Miles and Molly Tolbert, Renate and Charles Wiggin, Amy and Dean Sergent, and Leslie Batchelor and Scott Williams. They recruited families from the other surrounding neighborhoods " Heritage Hills East and Mesta Park " and started a donation campaign.

"It really created a sense of community; it generated a lot of buzz," Molly Tolbert said.

Two of the largest donations came from Wilson alumna. The Inasmuch Foundation, founded by Edith Kinney Gaylord, donated money for a strings room, and Dorothy Farmer bequeathed $100,000 from her estate for a visual arts room.

In total, Wilson Arts Inc. raised more than $850,000 for additional, arts-based improvements on top of what the MAPS projects will achieve. Working together, the improvements were rolled into the scheduled MAPS work. When the project is complete, the arts-based improvements will add four additional classrooms for drama, strings, music and visual arts, said Tolbert, who has two children attending Wilson.

But, more than just the physical, she said the change to the surrounding neighborhoods has been astounding.

"As the school has improved, I've noticed the neighborhood getting younger," Tolbert said.

Added Story: "Realtors really love me now." "Jenny Coon Peterson

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