How does a school with 35 music students grow to become one of the state’s most respected music and art programs? According to Tim Greener, superintendent of the Christian Academy School System, it starts with a vision and people who believe in realizing a dream.
“In 2003, it became clear that our students were coming to school with interest and talent in art and music,” Greener says. “We had a small music department – maybe 35 students. I found a young teacher who loved music, but he loved students even more. He understood that great things start when people believe in themselves and in a purpose. That became the basis for what would grow into a music department, then a diversified program, and finally into a school within a school.”
That was 17 years ago, when Band Director Matt Wooten was hired.
Today, the Christian Academy of Louisville (CAL) School of the Arts (SOA) features seven band ensembles, four orchestras, six choral groups and 13 art classes, serving more than 300 engaged students. In addition, there are honors and advanced placement classes in music theory, conducting, music history and group piano instruction. In addition to Wooten, the SOA faculty includes Tammy Cusick (visual art), April MacDonald (orchestra), Cassie Holfinger (choir), Nikki Troxle (digital art) and Nicole Turner (percussion), as well as other faculty and instructors who play an integral part in the program.
“The vision of this program from the beginning was to create an opportunity for students to develop their talents to the fullest with groups, instruction and performances that would be unequaled in the area,” Wooten says. “We wanted to reach out, not only to the most talented, but also to those who just wanted to test the waters to see if they wanted to try something new. The results have exceeded anything we ever imagined.”
For example, the CAL symphonic and chamber orchestras under MacDonald’s direction have been invited to perform for the Kentucky Music Educators Association (KMEA) and the National American String Teachers Association. In fact, both of these groups were asked to perform twice in the past four years for the KMEA (there is a required three-year waiting period between invitations).
Today, students ranging from novices to the most advanced are enjoying the chance to develop their talents, while also finding a personal purpose in the process.
“Our goal was not to create a great arts program, but to create a great opportunity for students to see that God provides talent, and we can develop those talents to honor him, be inspired by what he has created and encourage others with his glory,” Wooten says. “Students get excited when they see purpose behind what they do. They want to do their best and we want to give them every opportunity to do so. I’ve been blessed by a wonderful staff that believes in the same mission.”
Not every student has the highest level of talent, but all are encouraged to reach their own potential and to enjoy the support and camaraderie of other students.
In the national scholastic writing and art competitions, CAL students have traditionally placed among the highest in the area and the nation, with students having their art displayed for national recognition at Carnegie Hall in each of the past four years. Alumni art has appeared in galleries in Washington, D.C., and throughout Kentucky. CAL musicians have appeared with the Kentucky Opera, Off-Broadway, in various community theaters around the country and in elite collegiate ensembles.
“Even those who don’t major in music at college often receive scholarships to play with college ensembles,” Wooten says. “They find music continues to be part of their lives, and they enjoy being able to play after they leave here.”
For the most committed students, CAL offers a special diploma track. Combining performance with advanced placement music or art classes, students can earn a special School of the Arts diploma designation. Approximately 30 to 40% of these students major in music or art in college, with the intent to pursue professional careers. Careers of CAL graduates include design, education, music and art therapy, as well as performance. More than 200 students have now graduated with a School of the Arts distinction.
Students don’t lose what is most important in the program — seeing their talent as a gift to be used for God.
“I know I was never the best, but I enjoyed playing and put my heart and soul into the music,” an SOA graduate says. “Openness in music made me more receptive when I heard Mr. Wooten share his struggles in life, and that gave me the inspiration to fully put my faith in Christ.”
The SOA leaders are looking to expand the program to include an already extensive theater program in the near future.
“We want to use all the arts to develop our students’ hearts and talents,” Wooten says. “With God’s vision, I am just so excited to see where the future will take us.”