When students enter the art or music studio in their Bloomfield Hills Schools elementary or middle school, they enter a world where they are encouraged to express themselves just as artists would — where there is no one correct way and no expected outcome other than to gain social-emotional and problem-solving skills that will take them into high school, higher education and beyond.
“What’s different now is that we are educating children for careers that haven’t yet been invented,” says Pennie Ellis, art teacher at Bloomfield Hills Schools’ Conant Elementary and Bloomfield Virtual. “What’s most valued for these future roles is the ability to think creatively, and the arts are the best place for that.”
Art and music build creative problem solvers and divergent thinkers who recognize their own abilities to communicate through art, especially about what it means to be human and solve the big problems of the world, Ellis says. “Through art, we are allowing children to solve small problems, which is important no matter what career they choose.”
This critical importance is one reason Ellis says she is excited about the district’s recommitment to arts education. With the passage of a $200 million bond in August 2020, Bloomfield Hills Schools is renovating spaces at all levels to provide students opportunities to explore and uncover their talents at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
At the elementary level, art and music teachers at Bloomfield Hills Schools can engage with students on a unique level — one that doesn’t necessarily reflect their performance or ability in other academic subjects.
“When children come into music class, they are music students. Here, they are given the opportunity to express their creativity and we develop and nurture that,” says Kate Philp, music teacher at Eastover Elementary and East Hills Middle School. In elementary school, most Bloomfield Hills students engage in art and music once or twice each week.
Watching kids grow and develop in their abilities and self-confidence is a favorite part of Philp’s job. “I love seeing students in kindergarten and then as they grow and change. But I also like getting to know their families and provide a friendly face and continuity in their education,” she says. Those strong relationships make Philp feel like “a rockstar in the hallway.”
Philp says she has made excellent use of the flexible space known as the “cafetorium” at East Hills Middle School. “I’ve had a concert of 50 kids and maybe 50 audience members and it was a cozy space,” she says. “But I’ve also filled it out elbow-to-elbow and to have that room is really good, too.” Because the space is also used as a cafeteria where all kids spend a portion of their day, this familiarity has helped with performance anxiety for some kids, she says.
As the district reimagines its physical buildings through the 2020 bond, performance spaces will be enhanced and expanded at the two North Hills and South Hills middle schools, which are yet to be named, paving the way for students to fully explore their interests and talents.
Following an “instruction leading construction” philosophy, a new “auditoria” space at the South Hills Middle School will have tiered seating that can be reconfigured as needed. North Hills will have a full auditorium. There will also be separate, larger spaces for band, orchestra, choir and drama, a welcome change, as currently these spaces are sometimes shared, says Kendra Peterson, director of bands at Bloomfield Hills Middle School.
New performance spaces at both sites will improve the experiences of BHS middle school students, Peterson says.
“A stage with proper acoustical treatments and space for large ensembles will allow students to appropriately hear themselves and the entire ensemble as they perform; no more battling with echo, delay and squeaky bleachers,” she says. “This helps students gain ownership of their personal performance and take pride in their ensemble performance. Students’ self-confidence and pride in performances are key elements to help keep students involved in music. With the new performance spaces our middle school students will be one step closer to experiencing what it is like to be a professional musician.”
The performance spaces will enhance all the performing arts, too, and allow for guest artists, speakers and musicians to perform for all students, Peterson adds.
When they reach fifth grade, students select band or orchestra to learn to read music and gain experience playing an instrument. In sixth grade, students can select from band, orchestra or choir and, if they choose, can continue these electives through middle school.
Once they reach high school, Bloomfield Hills High School (BHHS) students can select from 19 music offerings, including choir, band, orchestra, auditioned musical groups, guitar and ukulele, jazz band, music technology and more. In addition to music, BHHS students can study acting, theater production, broadcasting, speech and debate and forensics.
Elementary art programs build lifelong skills
Because the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme and Visible Thinking initiatives at Bloomfield Hills Schools provide frameworks for inquiry-based learning opportunities, elementary students engage with the arts through open-ended inquiry. “That investigative process fits in with all four of our elementary schools,” says Mallory Molnar, art teacher at Way Elementary and Lone Pine Elementary schools.
Having a dedicated studio space stocked with paints, clay and iPads for teaching art is huge, she says. “The ability to set up a studio space so the materials are accessible to kids helps them develop their craft and we focus on the process of creation and not necessarily the end results,” Molnar explains.
Through the Eight Studio Habits of Mind — a complementary initiative of the Harvard-born Visible Thinking framework — and the choice-based Teaching for Artistic Behavior approach, students at Bloomfield Hills Schools discover their own individual creative process while developing skills that can be used in other areas of life, including academic environments, Molnar explains.
Through a process of idea generation, expression, observation, reflection and feedback and artist statement development, students perceive, create and reflect — all valuable skills in the learning process.
“Student voice is really a key part of the creative process, which helps with social-emotional learning,” Molnar says. Students, even when working remotely, used art to process their experiences during quarantine. “One student took clay and made a blown-up version of the coronavirus cell, which really helped him work through what was going on in his life.”
As they grow to middle school age, Bloomfield Hills Schools students can select art electives in rotation with drama, design and technology and health. By eighth grade, students can choose to study semester-long courses in 2D or 3D art or performance classes that include a fall play or spring musical.
At the high school level, BHHS students can select from 19 visual arts courses such as photography, graphic design, drawing and painting, ceramics and sculpture and jewelry-making and metalsmithing. In the upper level, students can opt for AP and IB art courses.
Learn more about offerings in the arts at Bloomfield Hills Schools at bloomfield.org and experience the students’ talents yourself at the district-wide Art From the Hills virtual art show at bhsartfromthehills.com.