For most parents, getting their children interested in the arts-attending the ballet rather than a rock concert, for example-is an ongoing struggle. But for some area students, the arts are already a major focus in their lives. And for them, the new Preparatory School for the Arts is a dream come true.

The road to approval and implementation for this innovative program wasn’t an easy one, said Peoria Public Schools Director of Fine Arts Sharon Samuels Reed. "I was teaching in Pekin when the proposal was first presented; therefore, I wasn’t on the original team to write the proposal. The idea, however, had been tossed around for many years. While I was a choral music educator at Woodford High School, there was talk that we should have a program at one of the high schools that focused on the arts."

The idea became an official proposal in 2000, she said. "The administration at that time worked very hard researching the idea. The concept was to provide a collegial atmosphere for students who were advanced in the arts and had a burning desire to become more immersed in the arts than the traditional programs could offer."

Reed said the proposal for the program was presented to the Board of Education twice before it was approved. "Upon my entering this position in July 2001, I was asked to review the initial proposal and to present it again in December. I did, and it was unanimously approved December 17, 2001. The new proposal included time to allow us to prepare students for an audition process through workshops during the summer and fall semester. This period also allowed us necessary time to prepare the facilities, staff, and community for implementation."

The period between approval of the program and implementation was used very wisely, she said. "I designed a prep program, ’Dreamweavers,’ that articulated the program in each of the middle schools in Peoria Public Schools. I spoke with each of the then-seventh grade classes and strongly encouraged each of the students to participate in a summer workshop that aided in their audition process. The program was very successful. Students were then afforded another opportunity for development during the fall workshop in 2002. On December 7, we held our first round of auditions."

Students audition for the program in one of four areas of focus-dance, drama, music, or visual arts. "During the initial auditions, music students prepared selections to perform for an adjudicator," Reed said. "Visual art students prepared a portfolio of their work that was judged by an art instructor. Dance students attended a master class taught by a professional dancer. At the end, students were asked to perform the combinations that had been taught during the class. Drama students prepared a monologue."

The program is designed to accept 80 students per year, she said, and there are currently 62 students enrolled.

The program provides an arts-focused curriculum that immerses student artists in the theory, science, literature, and culture of the arts, Reed said. "This program is designed to prepare our students for the artistic, university, and professional world through exploration, in-depth study, application of technology, interdisciplinary experiences, and performance and exhibition."

But these kids aren’t getting off easily in other academic areas. Since they have to fulfill all requirements necessary for graduation in the State of Illinois, their school day begins at 7 a.m., Reed said. "Additionally, they’re enrolled in two arts classes per day-for instance, one theory class and one performance. Arts-focused students are also required to enroll in a language."

Because of the schedule of arts classes, students are able to participate in more than one performance group when desired and qualified, Reed said. "And in order that students may develop a deeper appreciation for all areas of the arts, on Fridays they rotate to other areas of focus outside their own. By the end of freshman year, they will have experienced all four areas of focus."

The good news for parents of these talented youth is there’s no additional cost to participate in the program, which is based in Peoria High School. "However, there could be a minimal cost for students to attend a particular production," she said. "Organizations have been very generous in providing tickets to our students to attend their productions. When there’s been cost involved, scholarships have been offered to offset expenses. The program is financed as are all other curricular offerings in our schools. We do, however, seek support for our special offerings from community resources, and the community has been extremely generous."

Reed said it’s fortunate that there’s such a wealth of quality arts organizations in the area and that they’ve extended their support to the Preparatory School for the Arts. "Our students have been afforded the opportunity to interact with several professional artists, to attend productions at the Civic Center, as well as hear an outstanding university choral ensemble. Additionally, production companies have donated portions of ticket proceeds to the school."

The program began with this year’s freshman class, and Reed said this introductory period has allowed for careful planning to meet the needs of the individual students. "The future, of course, includes the addition of a new class each year, and the hope that investment in this program of study will yield great results for all of our students."

She said the most challenging aspect of her job at this point is ensuring the program is off to a solid start and that each student’s needs are met. "Personally, a big challenge for me is that I’m not a teacher in this program," said the 30-year educator. "I love teaching and interacting with the students. The best part is that I do have the opportunity to interact with the students quite a bit, and I’m often invited to speak with them. The staff realizes my commitment to this program, and they often utilize me as a resource. Other community arts organizations and character-building speakers are also being sought to come in and speak with our students, which is a great opportunity for the kids."

And the best part for the community? "We’re ensuring the community will have students who come out of our fine arts program more involved in the arts as productive adult citizens," Reed said. "As a result, our community will be much richer." AA!