Making art a possibility

Stivers 2011 Dance graduate Chadonn Cummings. Stivers 2011 Dance graduate Chadonn Cummings.

Stivers School for the Arts is crafting tomorrow’s creative minds

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

Stivers 2011 Dance graduate Chadonn Cummings.

Stivers 2011 Dance graduate Chadonn Cummings.

The real world. It’s a reference point that adults use to define the life that follows high school graduation, the achievement of a college degree or that first step toward earning that very first paycheck.

Sometimes it has a negative connotation. As in, “Welcome to the real world, kid.” Yeah, “real” adults like to remind the younglings that work, worry and bills — that’s all part of growing up.

And other times, it’s simply used to mark that point in life where it comes time to make big decisions, like what major to choose in college or what career path best suits a particular skill set.

Either way, it’s a time in one’s life that is typically reserved for the later years of being a teenager or even for the early years of being a young adult. But for the kids at Stivers School for the Arts, the “real world” is a turning point that comes much sooner in their lives. And it’s one that holds a world of possibilities toward their artistic futures.

“Stivers is one of the few schools that has a six-year immersion in the artistic  development of its students as opposed to a typical performing arts high school setting,” said Rodney Veal, an adjunct faculty member for the school’s dance department. “And the depth of engagement with professional working artists who make up the majority of the adjunct faculty is really amazing.”

Located in the historic neighborhood of St. Anne’s Hill, Stivers offers programs in the arts, in addition to a full range of academics. Artistic programs include creative writing, dance, orchestra, theater and visual arts. It is the only public school in the Dayton City School District that has been designated as a grade 7-12 school. The approximately 930 students at Stivers enter the school at the seventh grade level by audition and make a full six-year commitment.

“We are training young artists,” said Angela Tomaselli, director of the theater program. “They have an appreciation for the arts. They are immersed in it and they have a cultural awareness that can be lacking in some. [These students] enrich the community with their sensibility, intelligence and artistic strengths.”

Students who attend Stivers School for the Arts must first complete an audition process, said Outreach Coordinator Jenny Palmer. Students may audition for up to two of the art magnet areas which include band, choir, dance, creative writing, orchestra, piano, theater and visual arts. Students audition during their sixth grade year to begin in the seventh grade.

“Because most students enter Stivers in the seventh grade, there are very few seats — typically less than 10 — available each year in each of the upper grade levels,” Palmer said. “There is, however, an opportunity for students in the upper grade levels to audition for those seats.”

Sixth grade auditions for the 2012-2013 school year will be held at Stivers on Saturday, January 28, 2012. Registration begins that morning at 7:30. A parent or guardian completes the registration form at that time and students are directed to their audition sites.

Attending Stivers with a concentration in orchestra and dance, Macy Hudson, 12, said her audition was a nerve-wracking process, albeit a rewarding one.

“I was most nervous about showing them that I could do what it takes to have a successful audition,” Hudson said. “I knew what I was supposed to do, but it made me nervous because I knew that I had to really do well in order to make it in. The faculty helped make the process easier by smiling and giving me encouraging words before I auditioned.”

Hudson said the waiting process was laden with anticipation as she and her family waited for several weeks to receive the results of her audition.

“We kept checking the mailbox,” Hudson said. “When the letter came, my dad opened it and said, ‘Congratulations.’” We all read the letter over and over. My mom and sisters hugged me and I felt like it was the best day of my life!”

Twelve-year-old Renaldo O’Neal, a band student at Stivers, said his audition results left him completely speechless.

“When I found out, I was excited and didn’t have any words,” O’Neal said. “It was a big accomplishment because I really wanted it.”

Tomaselli said a successful audition process is a major accomplishment that many students see “as an important milestone in their lives.”

“We strive for excellence — academically and artistically,” Tomaselli said. “The students are honored when they are able to grace the stage. Everyone fits in here … you are able to be who you are without fear of retaliation or condemnation.”

Seventh grader Kylie Fine said in addition to pursuing her magnets, theater and band (she plays the clarinet), Stivers’ liberal and welcoming environment is what makes attending school enjoyable.

“I like being a Stivers student because everyone takes you for who you are and you can be yourself,” Fine said.

That wide-ranging environment that is consistently being bred within Stivers is linked to endless possibilities for students, said Art Director Gwynne Rearick.

“Stivers is the only arts school in the southwestern Ohio area and is only one of a few arts schools in the state of Ohio that offers visual arts, in addition to the performing arts,” Rearick said. “Each department competes and, quite honestly, wins awards and honors far too numerous to list.”

Rearick did, however, note a few particular accomplishments that stand out amongst that list: The theater department traveled overseas to Scotland several years ago to compete; the jazz band took top honors at a recent national competition in Boston, and 12 of the school’s visual arts students were recognized nationally at both the Young Arts Competition and the Scholastics Art and Writing Awards. The school was also honored by U.S. News and World Report as being among America’s best public high schools, earning a Bronze Award in 2008 and Silver Award in 2009.

“As soon as you walk into the building, you will see that Stivers is a place like no other,” said Rearick. “In stark contrast to the institutional decor of other school buildings, you will see sculpture, paintings, photographs, and prints. You will hear magnificent harmonies echo through the corridor.”

Currently, those sounds, pieces of artwork and role rehearsals are centered around upcoming holiday productions, including the Choir and Orchestra Holiday Concert  on December 13 at 7 p.m. at Stivers Centennial Hall; the Chamber Orchestra performance on December 14 at 11 a.m. at Kettering Tower; the Holiday Piano Concert on December 15 at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Stivers Centennial Hall; and the Jazz Band and Concert Band Winter Concert on December 20th at 7 p.m. at Stivers Centennial Hall.

“The holiday performance is masterful and inspirational,” Rearick said. “The love and dedication of our staff and students will leave a definite and lasting impression.”
Veal said a Stivers performance is an experience that will “challenge your notions of what young people are capable of when given access and opportunity.”

“You will be blown away,” he said.

And in addition to performance opportunities, Hudson said the various options the school has to offer are what make it an enjoyable environment for her and other students. And her attitude is ever-positive and nearly infectious when conveying her excitement about Stivers.

“I love my orchestra and my dance magnets,” Hudson said. “My academic and my magnet classes challenge me, but I don’t mind the challenge because I worked hard to get here and I want to do my best.”

Hudson’s attitude is certainly not an everyday sentiment expressed by the average 12-year-old. But it’s one that is common amongst students who attend Stivers, where they feel like the pursuance of their life’s work has already been set in motion.

“Stivers is beacon of light in the Dayton community,” Rearick said. “We offer hope to urban students who might not otherwise have a creative outlet. Our students are always being praised by community members who say that, in addition to being talented and skillful, our students are also polite, compassionate, and eloquent.”

Polite? Check. Compassionate? Check. Community-oriented? Check. Sounds like the students are Stivers are boasting “real world” chops across the board.

“When you sit in a Stivers performance by any magnet you will find yourself asking, ‘Are these really high school students?’” Tomaselli said. “You will feel honored, amazed and often brought to tears.”

Veal said he couldn’t agree more: “Stivers is a vessel that demonstrates the amazing possibilities that occur when the entire community, public and private, is engaged in the common goal of excellence.”

Ah, possibility. A sign of hope that can move even the biggest “kids” on the block toward a belief in the greatest of possibilities.

Interested students can prepare for the Stivers audition process by reviewing the audition information on the school’s website at under the “Admissions” tab. Questions about auditions can be directed to Jenny Palmer at (937) 542-7477.

Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at

The Dayton City Paper would like to thank the staff and students of Stivers School for the Arts for their help on this story and cover image. Special thanks to Tina Lakin for the design inspiration.

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