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Educating the Whole Child at Milwaukee High School of the Arts

Sep. 5, 2017
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Editor's Note: This article was updated on Sept. 11, 2017.

Milwaukee High School of the Arts (MHSA), founded in 1984 and part of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), places a unique emphasis on integrating arts with academia. The mission is to foster the growth of the whole child and significantly increase preparedness for higher education and other life experiences following graduation. The school ranks in the 90th percentile for graduation rates in the district and achieves the remarkable feat of ensuring that students gain the state-mandated academic credits to graduate, while simultaneously providing at least two class hours of arts education every day in students’ selected “majors” of visual arts, music, creative writing, dance or theatre. [Full disclosure: I graduated from MHSA in 2008 with a major in Theatre Performance.]

This summer, I sat down with MHSA Principal Barry Applewhite to discuss what makes MHSA’s educational approach unique and how the school continues to develop its efforts to give students the tools they need to manage their busy schedules and to succeed in life after graduation. Asked why he believes arts are an essential part of education, Applewhite shares his personal background: “I think it makes the whole child. I was an arts person. I was a band director in ’97-’98 at High School of the Arts. Band made a big difference in my life. It helped me understand that 2+2 = 4. It made everything practical for me.”

Proof of its commitment to quality arts education, MHSA maintains a staff of 13-15 arts-certified teachers as well as consultants. Moreover, through programs like artsHubmke (a collaboration between Cardinal Stritch University, Arts @ Large and MPS), MHSA strives to integrate what students learn in the academic classroom with their arts education.

Applewhite cites a recent project in which MHSA science teacher Mara Kachelski brought her students to the Milwaukee Public Museum to display and present models they’d made about relevant environmental subject matter. “This creates memorable experiences. You could go into a classroom and ask, ‘Are you doing art or are you doing science?’ and she would argue that she’s doing both,” Applewhite says. Another recent point of pride was a Cancer Health Fair presented to the public last January by MHSA students under direction from physical education teacher Dakota Berg. Here again, participants were able to apply model-building and presentation skills gained in their arts curricula to an academic field.


Academic Preparedness

How can a student with a schedule including two hours of art per day as well as extracurriculars such as health fairs, plays and recitals possibly keep their grades up and be ready for the rigors of college? MHSA manages by giving its students many opportunities specifically geared toward college readiness. For many years, the school has offered Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which count not only for high school credit but can also contribute to core curriculum at the majority of universities; at this time, available courses number at least 15 and include everything from chemistry and physics to literature and psychology. New this year, MHSA offers students the chance to be part of the AP Capstone Program, which, in addition to the usual AP courses, gives students the chance to learn college-level research and seminar skills starting at age 14.

As Applewhite points out, “Now a kid’s coming out with an AP Capstone diploma. You can have more than 16 credits going into college. Think about how that translates into the pocket. An [approximate] $20,000 discount your first year is a game changer for many of our kids that have nothing. You’re going to school practically free your first year and, on top of that, when your university sees that you’re in the AP Capstone Program, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to get more scholarships.”

Also new this year, MHSA offers the Personalized Blended Learning Program, which uses a combination of online and traditional learning to allow students greater flexibility in personalizing their busy schedules and incorporating as many opportunities as possible. MHSA likewise works diligently with local organizations to offers students internships in the real world of arts and business. Applewhite notes that many students begin their senior year having already earned the 22 credits they need to graduate.

What then do they do with their final year? There are two major possibilities. Through the Youth Options Program, high schoolers can begin their collegiate level work on a local campus. MHSA also works with several prominent local organizations including Near West Side Partners and The Wisconsin Center to find students internships. Applewhite offers an example of this process at work even over summer vacation: “Just recently we got a phone call from Near West Side saying ‘We need two students that do visual arts to work with some community kids and introduce them to oil paint.’”

To help students cope with the mental and emotional strain of their artistic and academic rigors—as well as personal challenges they may face because of their home environment, poverty or other factors—the school also offers a Restorative Practices elective. This gives them a safe space to talk about their day-to-day dilemmas and receive restorative tools and support from peers and faculty.


The Payoff

MHSA’s alums include many prominent members of the local and national arts scene, including Broadway performer Kyle Taylor Parker (Theatre, ’07), New York City fashion designer Kasia Wisniewski (Visual Art, ’06), Joffrey Ballet and former Milwaukee Ballet dancer Jacqueline Moscicke (Dance, ’03), and Strange Fruit Festival co-founder and saxophone virtuoso Jay Anderson (Music, ’07). However, as Applewhite points out, even if an MHSA student does not pursue a career in the field they explored in high school, the presence of arts in their early life has inestimable value.

“In education today, you can’t just deal with one side of the brain; you have to deal with both sides of the brain and educate the entire child.” Especially for students who are part of what Applewhite terms “the microwave generation”—raised with the instant gratification of social media and internet search engines—developing attention and retention are paramount. He extols the ever-greater importance of gaining the fundamental problem-solving and critical thinking skills that academics and arts education have to offer.

“When you get the foundational tools from math, just like when you get the foundational tools in the arts, you become a great person in those areas, and you can pull out and use those tools in your everyday life.”

Update Sept. 11 2017: On July 27, it was announced that Barry Applewhite would be transferred by the MPS board to serve as principal of Marshall High School, and Marshall’s principal, Larry Farris, would replace Applewhite at MHSA. This announcement occurred 9 days after Applewhite was interviewed by the Shepherd and we were not made aware of this development by him or his staff. Furthermore, it has come to light that MHSA students’ receipt of a full two hours of arts programming per school day is now pending academic and artistic performance.

To learn more about Milwaukee High School of the Arts, call 414-934-7000 or visit milwaukeehighschoolofthearts.org.


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