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Creative learning

Fourth-grade teacher Yvonne Gadsden noticed a change in her son.

Normally reserved and shy, Marcus Gadsden started to become more creative and outgoing. During summer break, he began to write stories and songs to occupy his time.

"He was writing stories at night in his notebook, and telling me how excited he was to perform in drama, and I was like 'wow,'" said Gadsden, whose son is in second grade this year Saluda River Academy for the Arts. "Between him and my daughter, who went here and sings now in middle school, the change is amazing."

Gadsden said she owes that transformation to Saluda River Academy. Founded as a partial arts magnet school in 1999, the Lexington 2 elementary school teaches traditional subjects by integrating the arts into the classroom.

The school's initiatives are getting noticed, too.

For the 2008-09 school year, Saluda River Academy was one of five schools nationwide to be recognized by the Kennedy Center Alliance for the Arts for distinction in arts education.

"We say around here the arts are the heart of our school, and it really is true," principal Tonya Fryer said. "We integrate the arts into what we do in traditional lessons. We also have art classes, but it's not just art for art appreciation's sake. It's integrated into what we do."

Connie Boleman, an art teacher for 10 years at the school, said there are several things that make Saluda River Academy special.

"There are four basic components that make up what we are," Boleman said. "We integrate art into our regular classrooms. We teach to the South Carolina state standards for art. We offer after-school arts programs for students, and we have artists in residence."

Each month, art and music teachers meet with kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers to create lesson plans that integrate the arts into what the students will be learning.

The collaboration across the faculty is what makes the quality of education so strong, music teacher Gale McLeod said.

"When we go into their classrooms to do integration, we team teach," McLeod said. "We work together. So if we're doing science, which is not my strength, I may not get all the little details correct. But the teacher whose class I'm in will help me. It shows the kids that it's OK if you don't get it just right, and if you work together you can."

After-school programs such as dance and chorus keep students engaged long after school is over. Drama teacher Linda Linke says that the students use their after-school time to give back to the community as well.

"Art Majors Club, Puppet Troupe, Arts Unlimited are called our service arts groups because the children aren't charged for those but they give back with their time and their energy," Linke said. "They give back by performing or drawing for the community. We've had them do artwork for the Koger Center, the Riverwalk, the Colonial Center. They sang at the dedication for the airport military lounge."

The school's artist-in-residence program has professional artists from each of the four arts areas -visual arts, music, theater and dance - come to the school and share their expertise.

This year, Kimberly Roberts served as one of the four artists-in-residence for a week in October.

A percussionist with Pantasia Creative Learning, Roberts' program for third-graders, called Adventures in Rhythm, taught students to compose, choreograph and perform their own rhythm compositions using household items like pots, pans and trash cans.

Third-grade teacher Nicole Harmon said the arts not only can break down social barriers but language barriers, too.

"We have a decent amount of Hispanic students here, and they can express themselves through the drawing or theater skills that they know where they don't have to talk and use the English language," Harmon said. "So they can still be successful and show us that they know the content area. But it might just be a different way that the rest of the students are expressing themselves."

Fryer said the faculty teamwork helps bring curriculum to life.

"We really offer a comprehensive education that fosters a sense of pride and belonging in our school's community," Fryer said. "For us, it is really validating to be recognized by the JFK center," Fryer added. "Whenever an outsider recognizes what you're doing, it's a good feeling.

"It's really amazing what we can accomplish when the students, parents, faculty, staff and the board of education all come together."