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School Desk Blog: A Renaissance of the Arts

A Renaissance of the Arts


Sometimes a confluence of events brings talented, passionate, skilled teachers together in a way that gives students an incredible opportunity to gain a multitude of related skills. Right now, we are in a visual and performing arts renaissance at Ukiah High School. In the last several years, we’ve brought on new teachers in choir, band, and art. The work of their students has been impressive.

In hiring arts teachers, the bar for student production is intentionally set very high. In short, Ukiah High students should be able to compete on a national stage. Teachers need to be able to teach the skills necessary for them to do so.

The professional art world is unforgiving. Artists are often expected to meet high demands under tough circumstances with short deadlines, exacting audiences, and brutal competition. Although creativity is essential to excel in the arts, so is hard work and a lot of practice—along with a thick skin. Everyone’s a critic.

I don’t think we, as an educational community, do students any favors by pretending their art is better than it is, whether it’s singing, drawing, or playing an instrument. Without honest feedback, students take longer to advance.

We are fortunate to have teachers who can bring the very best out of students: teaching them the essentials, encouraging them to explore the edges of their self-expression and comfort zones, and providing constructive feedback so they can improve. They also demand that students perform and present their work publicly.  

In case you haven’t met them, let me introduce a few of our newest teaching stars. Beginning with choir, we have Josh Small, who is in his third year at UHS. Mr. Small moved here from Orange County after spending his whole life in the arts. We recruited him straight out of his teaching credential program, offering him his first full-time position, because it was clear he had a vision. He knew the kind of program he wanted to build, and he’s building it. His only musical flaw, that I can see, is his preference for truly obscure Elton John songs over the more mainstream ones.

Next, we have band teacher Audrey McCombs, another first-time teacher we hired straight out of her credential program. Ms. McCombs joins us from her hometown of Fortuna, a place with a tremendous marching band tradition. After high school, she attended Humboldt State University and then went abroad to England to earn her master’s degree in music.

As a teacher, Ms. McCombs’ connection with her students is unsurpassed. She’s unfazed by their forays into loud silliness. After a practice or performance, when many of us would be ready to go home and go to bed, she happily accepts their invitation to get milkshakes at Denny’s. Fun fact: Ms. McCombs, a Beatles fanatic, had Paul McCartney sign her arm. That signature is now a tattoo.

Our third new arts teacher is Rose Easterbrook, a Ukiah High graduate who studied at Mount Holyoke College. This is her first year teaching at Ukiah High (she taught at Pomolita Middle School last year), and she appears unstoppable. The quality of art and the enthusiasm of her students have been turning heads. When I shared information about the Congressional Art Contest, she said, “Can you show me what’s won in the past?” She’s already setting her sights on the most prestigious awards available in the nation.

While we are thrilled with our new teachers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our amazing photography teacher Lech Slocinski. Originally from Poland, Mr. Slocinski is one of the hardest working teachers I’ve ever met. I’m also grateful to our drama teacher Maria Monti who teaches students how to become powerful performers, to take to the stage with confidence and style; and our ceramics teacher Matt Crawley who helps students turn lumps of clay into truly stunning works of art.

The arts help us, as a society, understand ourselves and recognize the beauty all around us. Thanks to all those who pursue this important endeavor.