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Keeping the Arts in Mind

Looking Back on the History of Herron High School

Writer / Seth Johnson
Photographer / Michael Durr

The year was 2003, and Harrison Center founder and executive director Joanna Taft was already finding early success in the city’s Old Northside, providing artists with affordable studio spaces while also drawing hundreds of people out to gallery openings.Herron High School

Beneath the surface of these initial accomplishments, however, Taft was made aware of a larger, underlying issue facing Harrison Center artists — one that required a great deal of hard work and innovative thinking.

“By 2003, my artists started coming to me and saying, ‘I need to move to L.A., New York or Chicago,’” Taft says. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ They looked at me and they said, ‘Joanna. You are attracting emerging patrons — we need real art patrons. We can’t stay in Indianapolis unless there’s a broader art patron base here.’”

Around this same time, the John Herron Art Institute had also announced that it would be moving to IUPUI’s campus, after a century of being located in Herron-Morton Place where the historic Tinker house once stood. Due to her involvement with the Harrison Center, Taft was invited by then-Mayor Bart Peterson to be a part of a commission focused on figuring out what to do with the college’s former campus.

Shyly sitting at one of these meetings, Taft eventually proposed the idea to start a liberal arts high school where John Herron Art Institute once was. Hence, the initial seed for Herron High School was planted.

“I sat in the back of the room, and I heard people suggest things that weren’t fundable, weren’t sustainable, and weren’t the kind of ideas that people get passionate about, and those are my three tests for a good project,” Taft says. “I very insecurely raised my hand in the back of the room, and I said, ‘Ya know, I don’t know much about it, but I hear that there’s this new charter school movement, and I feel like there’s a funding source there that could help us honor the art and education history of this site. What if we created a high school designed to grow art patrons?’”

Faced with the task of starting this high school from scratch, Taft spent the next year-and-a-half seeking all kinds of community insight and support.

Herron High School“I interviewed and learned from 130 diverse people in the community, from philanthropy to education to fundraising to community development,” Taft says. “There were people who metaphorically patted me on the head and said, ‘Oh Joanna. Did you know starting a high school is hard?’ But I kept getting out of bed every day because I felt like it needed to be done, and nobody seemed to be passionate about doing it.”

Herron High School eventually opened its doors in 2006, holding classes in the basement of the Harrison Center before eventually moving to their current location across the street in 2007. Rooted in classical, liberal arts traditions, the Herron High School curriculum was developed with the arts in mind, in hopes of fostering future art patrons in Indianapolis.

“It’s a liberal arts curriculum, which is kind of time tested,” Taft says. “In ancient Rome, it was very important for citizens to have an education so they could be wise in how they voted. Today, we still need that citizenship that is educated so they can vote, be citizens and enter into community life.”

Over the years, Herron High School has expanded its footprint, adding Herron-Riverside High School and Herron Preparatory Academy to make up what’s now referred to as Herron Classical Schools. In reflecting on their growth over the years, Herron Classical Schools president Janet McNeal pinpoints the school network’s impassioned staff as a primary reason for their continued success.

“We have hired and continue to employ teachers who love our students and believe that they can become true scholars,” McNeal says. “They are content experts, and they are mission-driven educators.”

She continues, “A few years ago, we adopted this sentence: Joyful teaching equals joyful learning. We have this on banners throughout our schools. We believe if teachers love and enjoy their content area, students will be inspired to learn.”

Having now seen Herron High School grow and develop over the years, Taft (now board president emerita) can also reflect on the impact she’s seen the school have on the Herron-Morton neighborhood as a whole.

Herron High School

Photo (c) 2022 Charles Justin Sicking www.justinsicking.com 2022-08-11 Tinker North Indy

“Before Herron opened, 16th Street was a pretty dead street,” Taft says. “There weren’t restaurants, coffeeshops or other businesses along there — it was a lot of vacancy. But when Herron opened, all of a sudden Foundry Provisions opened because they had potential clients in the kids. So you started seeing kids walking around the neighborhood in their uniforms. I don’t know what it is, but seeing kids walk around just makes you smile and feel safer too.”

Herron High School is located at 110 E 16th St in Indianapolis. For more information, visit them online at herronhighschool.org or give them a call at 317-231-0010.

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