Ask most parents of a primary school student and they will readily rattle off the merits of a STEM education, which involves a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These days, it is often the arts that get downplayed, viewed as they are by many as ancillary.
Arts education skeptics may want to consider this. Recent studies, such as one reported by the Brookings Institution, reveal that the integration of the arts into primary education, or STEAM, can produce significant positive impacts on academic and social development.
My initial, if bemused, response to these findings was: “Well, naturally.” But then again, I was an Ashley Hall girl (and, starting this fall, I will be an Ashley Hall parent). In my primary days, my classmates and I regularly tromped off to a cottage on campus devoted to art classes and in middles school gathered in song as the Glee Club. This neatly teed up my high school years there, when I affixed a beard for the annual al fresco Shakespeare play and directed the beloved Christmas Play that is based on the medieval Chester Cycle.
“The arts are like the collagen,” said Ashley Hall’s Head of School Jill Muti, while emphasizing the high standard of the sciences at the all-girls private school, which is situated in downtown Charleston and spans a coeducational preschool through 12th grade. In her fifteen years there, Muti has advanced the school’s interdisciplinary curriculum, which is rooted in the Classics and that marries the humanities and arts with sciences.
“One of the Ivy’s accepted one of our girls in their engineering program precisely because she could write really well and had a strong background in the humanities,” said Muti. “Why is this important? It’s because in every field there needs to be a sense of empathy and ethics.”
This year Ashley Hall celebrates its 110th anniversary and since Mary McBee founded the school in 1909, the arts have figured prominently into campus life. A Southerner, suffragette and arts lover, McBee came to Charleston after studying at Smith College and Columbia University Graduate School, determined to start the college prep school for women that had been lacking in the South when she had sought one. To do so, she picked a prime peninsular spot in the early 19th-century Regency villa, now fittingly dubbed McBee House.
From the get-go, McBee filled the villa rooms and adjoining grounds with all manner of artistic endeavors, from French minuet dances and Shakespearean plays on the lawn in the 1910s to the first Christmas Play in 1923. Her devotion to arts and culture expanded well beyond the school’s verdant environs and throughout the city of Charleston, where she helped to create the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, for whom she played the timpani and the Charleston Concert Association. She also founded both the Carolina Art Association, which is a parent organization of the Gibbes Museum of Art and the Free Library, a direct predecessor of the Charleston County Public Library.
“I would say that she was a Renaissance woman, in the sense that she understood the connectivity of what it meant to be a cultured person,” said Muti.
Author and Ashley Hall alumna Madeleine L’Engle, who famously penned the science fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time, may very well be the school’s STEAM poster girl, having gone on to bridge the scientific and the literary in her brilliant career. A member of the class of 1937, she recalled her school days in a 2004 interview in The New Yorker: “We did Shakespeare and the Chester Cycle. We had a Miss McBee, who was mad about the theater. The teachers thought I was bright and I was elected class president. It was extraordinary.”
These days, Muti works to further McBee’s commitment to arts in education in her own inspired and thoughtful fashion. In 2005 she introduced a mandatory strings program for students in kindergarten and first grade, with the opportunity to continue on if desired. According to Muti, studies have shown positive impacts on math scores with primary students who have music in their curriculum.
“There’s a really high correlation between music and math,” said Muti, a flutist in her own right who regularly joins the students in performances. “Oftentimes you’ll find that engineers, medical doctors and folks who are in physics and chemistry have had a rich background in the arts and specifically music.” The strings program offers the option of violin or cello, which facilitates instruction in a micro-tonal language that promotes language acquisition and that Muti said “really doubles down on the way you hear.”
Kindergarten and primary students also have required dance lessons, which Muti explains works well for children who are kinesthetic learners, expressing themselves more through touching and moving objects than through verbal modes. In a recent tour of the lower school, a wisp of a dance instructor welcomed me into an impressive stretch of a studio, emphasizing that the pieces the girls perform are less confections along the lines of Cinderella and more works grappling with deeper, complex themes.
According to Muti, the arts are also an ideal way to share other cultures and Ashley Hall’s initiatives extend far beyond the classroom. In January, the school launched a new global learning initiative in Spoleto, Italy with two like-minded independent schools providing their students, teachers and alumnae with an immersive education in languages, the arts and the sciences on a historic shared campus throughout the year. Global exposure, after all, has been a hallmark of the school since the days of McBee, who was so keen on European travel she was stranded in Paris with a group of girls when World War Two broke out.
It is no wonder that so many Ashley Hall girls have embraced the arts for the long haul. There is L’Engle and there is Barbara Bush, the First Lady who famously promoted literacy. There are also alumnae shaping Charleston’s current cultural landscape. In the visual arts world, there is gallerist Lese Corrigan, artists like Janie Ball and Jennie Summerall and jewelry designer Mini Mariana Hay. The literary arts are well represented, too, with writers such as Josephine Humphreys, Barbara Street Hagerty and Margaret Bradham Thornton, as well as Polly Buxton, co-owner of Buxton Books. There are arts philanthropists, chief among them Martha Rivers Ingram, whose support powered the renovation of the Charleston Gaillard Center.
You can see Ashley Hall arts in action on April 11, when the school commemorates its 110th milestone with Crescendo, a musical concert hosted by anchor and alumna Meredith Land at the Charleston Music Hall. Featuring 200 student artists performing alongside special guests, the program will also introduce the school’s new anthem, inspired by the poetry of Dr. Nick Bozanic, assistant to the head of school for academic affairs and composed by Dr. Ethan Wickman, which was commissioned by the school for the anniversary.
“I spend a lot of time talking about the role of beauty in our world and how we process that beauty and make it intrinsic to who we are,” said Muti. “For me, the arts are integral. They’re not a layer on top of it. They have to be, because it’s the way we make sense of our world.”
It sounds spot on to me. But then again, I’m an Ashley Hall girl.