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Arts magnet program helps North Pinellas

A Times Editorial
Published February 24, 2008


Pinellas County School Board members knew a good thing when they saw it, voting unanimously late last month to create a magnet program for the arts at Tarpon Springs High School. ¶ It is the first high school arts magnet in north Pinellas County. Previously, students who wanted to focus their education around their talents in the arts had no choice but to take a long bus ride to Gibbs High School in South Pinellas.

North Pinellas is moving toward a more equal footing with South Pinellas when it comes to magnet programs for students with special talents or interests. The creation of the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High School in the 1990s was the first major victory for North Pinellas parents who wanted special academic programs for their children closer to home.

Just as with the North County IB program, some parents and educators had worried that the creation of an arts magnet in North Pinellas would weaken the very successful arts magnet in South County.

But those who designed the new North County arts magnet, which will be called the Tarpon Springs Leadership Conservatory for the Arts and will be open to students from anywhere in the county, helped blunt those fears by making the program significantly different.

The Tarpon High magnet will have a special emphasis on building leadership skills in students and exposing them to new technologies.

"This will give kids the skills they need in a digital world," said Kevin Ford, director of the conservatory.

Ford has led instrumental music programs at Tarpon High for years and has demonstrated the power that music has to build responsibility, commitment and leadership skills in students. He set the bar high when he arrived at Tarpon High, transforming the band program into a music boot camp for students and their parents as well. The result was an increase in number of students; a flood of local, state and national awards for the band; more parental involvement; and a big jump in private donations, even as band programs at other Pinellas high schools were struggling to survive.

One study after another has documented that when students participate in arts programs, their academic performance improves.

The foundation for the new magnet program was laid seven years ago when Tarpon High started its Leadership and Music Conservatory, an "attractor" program that focused on music for students enrolled at Tarpon High. Ford created a mandatory 18-hour leadership course for students enrolled in the program, bringing in guest speakers from various fields to talk about success and motivation.

When the new magnet program begins, likely next fall, it will include that emphasis on leadership. It will focus on choral and instrumental music the first year, but a theater program will be added the second year and visual arts the following year.

Schools superintendent Clayton Wilcox has demonstrated enthusiasm for exposing students throughout the county to the special opportunities offered by magnet and attractor programs. In this case, the School Board's unanimous decision signaled its support as well.

Talented students throughout Pinellas will benefit, but the new program is especially exciting for those in North Pinellas, who may finally be spared the long bus trips to South Pinellas for such opportunities.

[Last modified February 23, 2008, 21:20:30]

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