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Arts at Sayre: Sparking creative, academic, and life success

student standing in front of paintings
Angie Roberts

kids in Madagascar musical

Imagine a PK-12 school where creative pursuits are a cornerstone of the educational experience. At Sayre School, fine arts ignite not only artistic talent but also academic achievement while cultivating skills for life success.

On this vibrant urban campus in the heart of Lexington, students of all ages can paint, draw, sing, play instruments, act, write poetry, and more. Taught by a cadre of accomplished artists, Sayre’s arts classes and extracurricular activities set students up to thrive in whatever career paths they pursue.

Joyfully expressing themselves

Arts programming begins at age 2 at Sayre, with visual arts and music taking center stage from preschool through fourth grade.

“My vision is to foster a love for music in students and give them the tools they need to joyfully express themselves,” says Marcus Thomas. Holding a master’s degree in music education, he’s a member of several local, state, and national groups for music teachers.

This year, Thomas directed second graders in writing poetry inspired by the book “Water Dance,” Thomas Locker’s lyrical exploration of how water moves throughout the world. In the fourth grade, students explored movement and space and danced around the song “Kitchen Stories,” an energetic piece of bluegrass music by the band Dreamers’ Circus.

Exploring visual art in many forms

In the Lower School, visual art takes on many forms. This year, first graders donned chef’s hats and aprons as they embellished mini cakes with frosting squeezed from decorator tips. Another class participated in fence weaving, lacing textiles through the openings in a school fence to create a colorful mural of two children and the Earth. 

An important distinction for the Lower School is that students receive at least twice the amount of time in formal art instruction – including music and fine art – than in a typical elementary setting. “This, along with a powerful focus on student creativity and composition, allows students to develop a deep and rich knowledge of the arts and how they affect the rest of their learning,” said Thomas.

While Sayre does not offer formal theatre instruction in the younger grades, it’s integrated into project-based learning. When third graders culminated their Immigration Project last fall, they dressed up in early 20th-century attire and acted out their characters’ arrivals at Ellis Island. Both skits and role-playing set the stage for more elaborate theatrical productions as students age.

Expanding their expressiveness

Once they enter Middle School, tweens and teens can find their voices on stage and behind the curtains. Sayre offers fully sequenced theatre coursework from fifth through eighth grade where students write and perform original scenes and learn comedy improvisation.

As part of a theatre elective, seventh and eighth graders can perform in an annual spring musical. Past productions have included musical theatre versions of “Madagascar” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

“My vision for middle schoolers is to create a fun, safe, and inclusive learning environment; introduce and reinforce the joy to be found in theatre; and expand the students’ physical and vocal expressiveness,” says Neil Nash. An award-winning theatre educator with over 20 years of experience, Nash is also a patron of the arts, drawing inspiration from Lexington-area theatre productions.

Music education at Sayre is also comprehensive, with students in grades five through eight enjoying fully sequenced classes. These classes engage students in improvisation and writing songs, allowing them to express themselves and work collaboratively. 

Guitar is a regular part of the music curriculum, and students can also participate in a chorus elective. Chorus students perform in concerts for their peers and families, as well as audition and participate in the Kentucky Music Educators Association (KMEA) All-State Children’s Chorus and the All-State Junior High Chorus.

Sharing collaboration and fellowship

Multimedia artist Anne Allen teaches fine arts to Sayre middle schoolers. Like other art educators at Sayre, she emphasizes not only individual but also collective expression. Last fall, in a study of nature and existence, her students explored a variety of techniques for creating multilayered images.

Students displayed their top choices in the all-school Human + Nature exhibit at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center. Among their exhibited works were spirit animals sculpted from clay; totems crafted from wire and beads; and cyanotypes, designs of blue and white applied to light-sensitive fabric.

“Students shared collaboration and fellowship in the art studio,” Allen says. As they worked, they sharpened their communication skills, developed a sense of shared responsibility, and gained a greater understanding of the artistic process. 

All students in Sayre's Middle School receive music, theatre, and visual art classes each year. That’s in contrast to most middle schools, where there is only one option, and it's not available every year.

Deepening student learning

In contrast to the Middle School, where arts programming is more exploratory, programs in the Upper School are more focused and designed to deepen learning.

For thespians, Sayre offers a playwriting course, which culminates in a public reading of the students’ original plays; Theatre I and II, which explore the world’s most influential plays and playwrights; and Comedy Improvisation, where students learn the creativity and discipline involved in the genre.

A fall play and spring musical give students the opportunity to perform for their peers, families, teachers, and the broader community. This spring’s production was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Immersing students in the urban atmosphere

Fine arts is a serious business at Sayre. While the Commonwealth of Kentucky only requires one credit in visual or performing arts for graduation, Sayre requires four. Many students opt to take even more, with several graduates earning a Diploma of Distinction in Creative Arts for an in-depth study of a single arts discipline.

“We have had visitors on campus that thought we were a fine arts school,” says Bill Berryman. With specialties in portraits, landscapes, still life, and narrative studies, he’s an accomplished artist himself. He’s exhibited at the Kentucky Artisan Center and the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen Gallery, both in Berea, Kentucky, and the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

To enrich the learning experience, the art educator seeks to immerse students in the urban atmosphere around them. Last fall, in keeping with a nearly 40-year tradition, his students visited the nearby Gratz Park Historic District, where grand 18th- and 19th-century homes surround eight acres of shady green space. Armed with pencils, art paper, boards, and rulers, the students sat on fallen leaves and drew architectural sketches.

Bringing students together through music

The vision of music educator Amy Berryman is twofold: 1.) helping Upper School students find their unique creative voices as part of ensembles and 2.) teaching her charges a range of skills that include reading, performing, listening to, analyzing, and composing music.

“Building these musicianship skills will bring us together, help students develop critical thinking skills, and help them discover a world of diverse artistic expression,” she says. A teacher of over 30 years, she directs the Spartones and the Sayre Singers. She’s also a church musician, worship leader, and member of the KMEA and the American Choral Directors Association.

Students in ninth through twelfth grade can participate in choir or band, no auditions required. They perform two to three concerts each year. Non-performance based classes in piano and AP Music Theory are also offered.

Upper School choir members, vocalists, and instrumentalists frequently earn superior and excellent ratings in KMEA assessments and other music festivals. Additionally, Sayre students are consistently selected for KMEA All-State Chorus, Band, Orchestra, and Guitar Orchestra, the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, and the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra.

At every grade level, many Sayre students who excel in the arts also excel in other disciplines. That’s consistent with reports by the Wallace Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) suggesting a positive association between arts education and academic outcomes.

Setting students up for success

Sayre alumni blossom in the arts. Many pursue artistic studies in college, finding career success in fine art, performance, fashion design, graphic design, architecture, writing, and more.

Regardless of each graduate’s chosen field – arts-related or not – Sayre’s comprehensive arts curriculum is designed to help each student become an engaged and appreciative citizen.

As organizations like the Americans for the Arts attest, arts programming imparts valuable skills that transcend artistic disciplines. Students become more effective critical thinkers, better communicators, stronger problem-solvers, and more well-rounded individuals, setting themselves up for success in any path they choose.