When Exeter resident Wendie Leweck first envisioned her New Hampshire arts charter school, she pictured it on the coast.
“Originally, it was going to be the Seacoast High School for the Arts,” Leweck said in a phone interview last week. “But the Department of Education encouraged us to look inland, in the Derry area, because a school of that nature was needed there.”
So she did. She and the prospective charter school board found a location on the grounds of Brookstone Park, in a building on Route 111 in Derry. After four years of planning, contemplating and proposing, the idea will come to fruition Aug. 28, when the Granite State Arts Academy school year starts.
Leweck will serve as the school’s business manager, and Dr. Michele Fox will be the school’s director. There’s room for 160 students, and GSAA will be accepting applications from kids in grades 9 to 12.
Members of the public got a brief glimpse of the school during an open house May 17. It left some students, like 15-year-old Michael McMahon of Danville, working on an application straightaway that afternoon.
“When he left there, he was more excited than he was when he first walked in,” said his mother, Amy McMahon, in a phone interview. “By the time the open house was over, he was really engaged and wanted to start his application essay as soon as we got home.”
The school is ideal for people like Michael, who find more confidence, passion and excitement in theater, dance and music than core curriculum subjects.
Over and over, Leweck has been hearing the same thing from parents and students looking to attend GSAA: that the students are not thriving or succeeding in their current environments, in part because of their lack of art, which are oftentimes the first programs to be cut from public schools.
“Arts teach you to think outside the box, to develop creative problem-solving skills,” Leweck said. “It gives students confidence, not only to convincingly deliver a message, but to take command of a stage, to be present and speak about an art piece. … Studying the arts allows students to learn how to set long-term goals and to work incrementally to achieve those long-term goals.”
She’s been seeing positive feedback from families already.
“When I see the excitement on the students’ faces, it makes the whole journey, all the difficulties and challenges we faced, worthwhile,” Leweck said, noting that it took quite a while for the school to be approved. “They will be expected to work very hard and give their best work here, but every day, they’ll have the opportunity to explore their art, to learn and create and imagine.”
The charter school will be set up with an extended school day; students will complete their core curriculum requirements in the morning, and after lunch, they’ll focus on at least two of the following studies: dance, music, theater and visual arts. As with all charter schools in the state, tuition is free for New Hampshire residents.
GSAA was inspired by Leweck’s own experience at a charter arts high school in California. She studied theater at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. The school was extremely supportive, and she hopes that GSSA will have that same sense of community.
“I want it to be a place they look forward to going to every day,” Leweck said.