Freedom of Expression
Local schools help students “find their voice” by stoking their passion for the arts.
by Mindy Toran

Some people believe any time students spent on artistic pursuits is time that could be better spent building their academic portfolios. Research shows, however, that the arts have resoundingly positive effects on a student’s academic, social, and emotional development. Whether they are playing a musical instrument, singing in the choir, performing in a play, or creating visual art, students gain self-discipline, self-confidence, and outlets for personal enrichment and enjoyment—all of which will serve them well throughout their lifetime.
The emphasis on the arts is especially important now, with students overloaded by screen time and the near-constant use of technology. The arts provide a creative outlet for kids to express themselves, reduce stress, and connect with others, according to Leah Kim-Tomilson, director of music at Villa Maria Academy High School in Malvern. Villa Maria offers numerous opportunities for creative self-expression—namely, music, visual arts, theater, and dance.
“The arts help students find their voice,” Kim-Tomilson adds. “Through our music program, we have the ability to help students discover their talents and guide them in the right direction, musically and beyond.”
Villa Maria offers classes in music theory, history, composition, and technology, with weekly private lessons on 14 different musical instruments. Students also have opportunities to perform with the school orchestra, concert chorus, handbell choir, madrigal singers, string ensemble, and the All-Catholic band, orchestra and chorus, as well as the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District, Regional, and All-State ensembles.
In addition to doing something they enjoy, students learn to manage their time efficiently, as well as practice perseverance, teamwork, and service to others. Kim-Tomilson’s goal: “to help students become better musicians, but more to prepare and guide them to interpret and apply what they have learned through music into their lives.”
Arts programs also help teach responsibility, resilience, and leadership. They also learn the life lesson that, even with practice, perfection may not always be within reach.
“When kids are taking part in an ensemble, similar to a group project in their academic subjects, they have to be responsible for their portion of the music and work with others to ensure that the performance sounds good,” she says. “They also have to accept the fact that their performance won’t always be perfect and become resilient in order move forward and improve their craft.”
At Nazareth Academy High School in Northeast Philadelphia, creative expression is part of the school’s culture, and students are encouraged to try various programs and media. Nazareth students have access to programs in the visual arts, performing arts, and music, with the opportunity to major in either music or art. 
“These days, kids are so afraid to make mistakes, or they’re worried about what others think about them,” says Bridget Shaw, chair of Nazareth’s art department. “The arts teach students that they can learn from their mistakes, help them build self-confidence and promote problem-solving skills. We give students the know-how and the tools to use whatever medium they’re working in, and their creativity is awe inspiring.”
Nazareth students can work in whichever medium they would like to explore: drawing, painting, printmaking, mosaics, sculpture, ceramics, and more. 
“Our students are so academically driven and focusing on so many things at once that they don’t realize their own creativity,” Shaw says. “The arts provide them with the space they need to create and relax. The experience they gain now will carry them throughout their lives and can help them in any field they choose in the future.”
Emily Victoria Kraus is grateful for the experience in Shaw’s classroom.
“Expressing myself through art has been a large part of what makes me me, from as far back as I can remember,” says Kraus, a senior at Nazareth. “When I chose to attend Nazareth Academy, a major deciding factor was based on the fact that Nazareth has art as a major. It is a stress reliever, creative outlet, free space to create under just the right amount of direction, and a studio environment where students feel free to express themselves, constructively critique each other, and grow.”
Furthermore, Kraus says Shaw—or “Mrs. Shaw”—has had “an incredible impact on my life.” Art classes have exposed Kraus to opportunities she would not have otherwise gotten, such as scholarships for classes at Moore College of Art and Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 
“The art program [here] has put me on the path to follow my dream of becoming an animator and visual-effects artist,” she adds. “I have already been accepted to Savannah College of Art and Design as a dual-enrollment student while still a senior at Naz.”
Kraus’s experience is further proof that artistic immersion provides students with experiences that will carry them well into the future. 

Prepared to Navigate
Middle school tends to be a challenging time for all students—growing into their personality, gaining new friends and losing others, learning what interests them, and growing into who they are as individuals. The journey tends to be more difficult, and potentially isolating, for children with learning differences such as ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia.
With the proper encouragement, support, and direction, however, students with learning differences can thrive academically, emotionally, and otherwise. Chrissy Mellon, head of middle school for AIM Academy in Conshohocken, has spent more than a decade watching it happen.
Now in her 12th year at AIM, first as a science teacher and now as head of middle school, Mellon says students with learning differences require teachers who not only have compassion and intuition, but who also understand the science behind how kids learn. The struggles come when students lack the resources or understanding to achieve their full potential. 
“Some kids don’t understand their potential, and their confidence just sort of gets crushed over time,” she says. “Once they ‘get it’ and realize how smart they are, they have that aha moment. The difference comes down to a change in the way they receive information.” 
Students with learning differences tend to be better served the earlier they get the attention they need. Middle school, which Mellon refers to as “the road to independence,” should be a safe place for students to make mistakes and learn from their missteps. By the time they reach eighth grade, they should be able to ease into accountability and self-advocacy.
“One of our goals is to help students understand how they learn, and give them all the tools in their toolbox they will need to carry with them,” she adds. “Overall, we’re really trying to help students recognize their needs, harness their strengths, and speak up for themselves, and to help them become independent once they leave here.”
Philadelphia-area schools such as AIM, as well as the others listed below, ensure that students with learning differences have the same opportunities as students without learning differences, from academics to athletics and extracurriculars. For example, AIM’s middle school students can choose from elective classes such entrepreneurship, music, and the performing arts, among others, to help them foster interests they may pursue in high school and beyond.  
“The journey is different for every student,” Mellon adds. “I think our job is to help them recognize what their potential is, build their confidence, and give them the tools they need to navigate and be successful.”

AIM Academy

Benchmark School

The Camphill School

Center School

Delaware Valley Friends School

MileStone Academy

The Vanguard School

Woodlynde School

Bill Donahue contributed to this report.
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, October 2021.