Cover Story

Reading, Writing and Rhythm
By Richard G. Johnstone, Jr. Editor


Colorful dancers bring "FAME" to life on the stage at Appomattox Regional Governor's School. Lauren Clay plays "Carmen" while wearing the costume designed by fellow student Victoria Allen. Almost every onstage and backstage role in ARGS productions is filled by students, from set and costume design to lighting and sound.

Creative kids sing, dance, act, paint and write their way toward an arts career at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School — Southside Virginia’s very own version of “Fame.”

As soon as you enter, it’s oh-so-obvious: This is not your typical school. Over there, where many schools would have a trophy case, this one has a theatre ticket box. And around here, where other schools might have a mural of their athletic teams or perhaps a colorful seasonal collage, this one has a Broadway-style billboard filled with stylish headshots and bubbly bios of budding actors. And lining the hallway, where you would expect to see announcements and posters, it looks like a modern art gallery, with prints and paintings and artsy photographs.

Want to Be a Patron of the ARGS?

Executive Director Lloyd Hamlin says, “We want this to be the most outstanding school of its type anywhere. When people think of arts or technology, we want them to think of ARGS. But our greatest challenge will be finding the revenue sources to provide the kinds of programs we want for the kids. These programs are very expensive to operate, but we were able to get started because of the philanthropic efforts of a lot of people in Southside Virginia.”

In fact, of the $10 million spent to renovate the former Petersburg High School and turn it into a Governor’s School, about $7.5 million of that has and will come from private sources, including foundations and individuals. About $6.5 million of that $7.5 million has already been raised through the school’s Campaign for Excellence. All donations are welcomed and all are tax-deductible. Donations can be general, or designated for a specific arts area, such as dance, theatre, etc.

Executive Director Hamlin also stresses that contributions of time and expertise are also welcomed. He says that volunteer opportunities include chaperoning events, helping with office duties, assisting with theatrical productions, and many more.

If you would like to make a financial contribution to the school or volunteer your time, please contact Lloyd Hamlin, Executive Director, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology, 512 W. Washington St., Petersburg, VA 23803, (804) 722-0200, e-mail: lhamlin@args.k12. va.us.  

Say, was that a student in hip-huggers and pointe shoes, edging past you on her tiptoes, ballerina-style? And down here, across from the school office — where you’d expect to see a listing of rules and regulations, right? — there’s a sculpture of a guy wearing a windbreaker, blue jeans and a decidedly “blank” expression, literally. His head, you see, is a television set, its screen empty. Is this a social commentary, a political statement, or simply whimsical art?

Well, it’s likely all three, here at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology in Petersburg (or ARGS to its students and faculty members). Serving as Petersburg High School for most of its existence, but not used by the city since the early 1980s, the 84-year-old building was resurrected from a slow, sad decline when it reopened as a Governor’s School in September 1999.

The yellow-brick building’s classical architecture belies the three-year-old school’s very modern ethos. And the building’s stately, static look belies the very dynamic, highly charged nature of the creative young talents who are polishing their skills inside it. Yet the school building’s very traditional feel is nicely reinforced by its young charges’ very traditional, very strong work ethic, and its high ceilings are an apt metaphor for the high-flying aspirations of its approximately 300 students.


Executive Director Lloyd Hamlin with an aerial photo of the school, which housed Petersburg High School for over half a century.

But as telling as anything else setting this school apart from most other high schools is what’s seen inside the restrooms. Or, rather, what’s not seen inside the restrooms: graffiti. There’s none of it. Anywhere. “Our kids value the school and help us take care of it,” the school’s executive director, Lloyd Hamlin, modestly points out with a smile. One of 16 full-time Governor’s Schools across the Commonwealth, ARGS’s distinction is in being the only one offering full-day programs for such a wide array of fine and performing arts. And with a student-teacher ratio of about 15-1, the school seemingly has the best of all worlds: the intimacy of a private school, a public school’s breadth of opportunities and resources, state-of-the-art amenities inside a picture-perfect building, and specialized training in the arts for especially artistic kids.


Social commentary or whimsical art? Budding artists (l-r) Robert Tench, Matt Blystone and Brandon Oyer with their “TV Head” creation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the school has an eccentric, bohemian feel to it, as if you had just walked into a spontaneous gathering of young poets, painters, musicians and actors. But to your surprise, you’re not in Greenwich Village, but in Petersburg — the heart of Southside Virginia — surrounded by kids from such rural areas as Dinwiddie, Powhatan, Prince George, Southampton, Sussex, Surry and Charles City counties. In all, 13 counties and cities in the Appomattox River basin send many of their best and brightest young arts talents to the school, which receives funding on a per-student basis from each participating locality.

Hamlin, a veteran educator with more than 30 years as a teacher and administrator, appreciates the opportunity the school provides for rural kids, many of whose families are members of Prince George, Southside or Community Electric Cooperative. These rural teens constitute about a fourth of the student body. Hamlin grew up on a 220-acre peanut, corn and grain farm in Surry County, and still lives nearby, so he understands what a unique experience the Appomattox school offers rural kids. “Many parents say they would love to have gone to a school like this,” he points out. “And for rural kids, this school offers an exceptional opportunity to grow as students and as artists in their chosen discipline. If you’re here as a dancer, then you know that you’re here with many of the best dancers in the region, and there’s an instant bond created between you and the other students.”


Cast members of “FAME” focus intently on director and theatre arts/music teacher Kay Ingram, who says the student actors and crew members “approached the production with the fervor of pros.”

The high school — much like a college does — offers its students the opportunity to focus on and major in a specific area of the arts: writing, dance, vocal or instrumental music, acting, visual arts, or one of several technology areas that stress expertise in computer use. “In rural areas, these types of arts programs are just unheard of,” Hamlin observes, adding, “The whole purpose of education is not to see the limits, but to see the opportunities. We try to provide those opportunities.”


With the school’s library shelves as a fitting backdrop, English Department Chair Lee Bloxom poses with writing students (l-r) Francis Horner, Sarah Bradsher, Heather Reynolds and Jessica Sims.

Yet the students from rural areas aren’t the only ones who appreciate the opportunities the school provides to grow, to explore, and to develop their creative gifts. The other three-fourths of the students come from suburban Chesterfield County, and the cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Franklin, and Richmond. Hilary Montgomery, 14, a sophomore vocal major from Chesterfield, says, “I’ve been performing ever since I can remember, so I was excited to find out there’s a school for performing arts that I could attend.” Shelby Stewart, 15, a sophomore dance major whose family lives in Richmond’s Fan District, says she enjoys the diversity of the student population, which features teens from numerous ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. “You can really just be yourself here,” she says. “You don’t have to put on an act, because people like you for who you are.”


“Faculty members here have to wear a few more hats,” says math teacher/athletic director Cheryl Simmers, seen here working with students (l-r) Julie Ellison, Asmara Mebrahtu and Sibley Slinkard.

This feeling that the school’s diverse mix of peers and teachers accepts you as you are — and sometimes despite who you are — was the most common theme heard during a visit late last spring to ARGS. In June, the school graduated its first senior class of 26 students, who entered as sophomores when ARGS opened in September 1999. Ross Harman, 18, a Prince George County visual arts major, was a member of that first graduating class. He now attends Virginia Commonwealth University. Harman says he received “the best education possible, with a lot more freedom to work creatively than at a normal high school. The teachers here do a great job blending the scholastic program and the arts into a great high school education.”

This sense of being accepted and respected is expressed by other students and by teachers in ways as varied and as colorful as the individuals themselves. Here’s a sampling.


With no sign of opening-night jitters, “FAME” actress Lauren Clay sits pensively while student Aurea Finney enthusiastically turns her into “Carmen.”

DeJuan Branch, 17, a senior vocal major from Sussex County: “Everybody comes together here, everyone is friendly. It’s like a family.”

Rachael Warstler, 16, a junior vocal major from Prince George County: “I love how everyone here is a friend, how everyone gets along. Everyone who’s here wants to be here.” 

Janay Green, 14, a sophomore visual arts major from Powhatan County: “What’s unique about the school is that everyone is a little quirky, everyone might have been an outcast at their former school, and now they are able to come together and be accepted. The acceptance here is important, because a lot of people don’t understand artists. It’s a lot of hard work and you have to be determined to be an artist.”


A member of the school’s first graduating class in 2002, art major Ross Harman holds the image that inspired his painting.

Katy Johnstone, 15, a sophomore theatre major from Chesterfield County: “It’s like a big family. The teachers take care of you like you’re one of their own kids. And the other students respect you and respect your artistic efforts. You can be yourself without worrying about other kids being mean to you.”

Sunni Velasco, 15, a sophomore writing major from Dinwiddie County: “Writing is how I express myself. When I heard there was a writing major offered here, I knew this was where I wanted to go. This school is different from other public schools. Here you feel freer to be yourself and to learn. For instance, I’m a writer who’s been able to learn technical (backstage) theatre in all its aspects and I’m thinking, ‘where else would I have the opportunity to do this?’”

Interested in Attending ARGS?

To attend ARGS, a student first must live in one of the 13 jurisdictions served by the school — the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Powhatan, Prince George, Southampton, Surry or Sussex, or the cities of Colonial Heights, Franklin, Hopewell, Petersburg, or Richmond. Next, that student should contact his or her school’s gifted coordinator to determine criteria, the number of scholarships to ARGS that locality is providing, and to begin the application process. For more information on ARGS generally, contact ARGS Guidance Counselor Sharon Young, (804) 722-0200, e-mail  syoung@args.k12.va.us

Michelle Thompson, 17, a senior visual arts major from Dinwiddie County: “There’s no racism here, and no one is mean, and everyone accepts you. We’re all basically outcasts and we’ve bonded here.”


Michelle Thompson (with self-portrait) says of the school’s diverse array of students: “We’ve bonded here.”

Colby Rogers, 17, a senior writing major from Chesterfield County: “There is a real feeling of community here. I feel comfortable around everyone I meet. After the September 11 tragedy, we all gathered in the auditorium for an assembly where we could share our feelings about the attacks. Everyone — freshmen and seniors alike — was able to tell exactly how they felt without fear of being teased or ignored.”

Lezlie Hierholzer, an English teacher in her third year at ARGS who has a family farm in Louisa County: “I’ve been teaching English since 1976, in DC, Haiti, the Philippines and other places. I met Mother Teresa in ’76 in the South Bronx and got involved in Mother’s outreach efforts there … The unconditional love she preached has carried over into my career, and in every school where I’ve taught I’ve found that students have the same needs: to be taught, to be understood, to be valued, to be trusted. These are very creative kids here, and I try to direct their energy toward creating beautiful things.”


Backstage talents Brock Kannan and Christina Joyner enjoy a light moment during construction of the “FAME” set.

The head of the English Department, Lee Bloxom, also follows a nurturing approach inside and outside the classroom. “We have enough room here for kids to experience and experiment and discover their talents fully. Many of the faculty are creatively gifted and so we understand what it’s like to be a teen with creative gifts and with the need to develop and use them,” says Bloxom, a native of the Virginia Eastern Shore who previously wrote for a newspaper in Williamsburg and taught in Hanover County.

She points out that the school also serves as a “safe harbor” for some of its talented students. “Sometimes, kids who are creatively gifted are not good students, because they get bored with routine assignments or like to try a different path to the answer. That different path is allowed here. Sometimes we lose such gifted kids at conventional schools because their needs are not being met.”


Janay Green (standing) and Rachael Warstler practice in one of the school’s state-of-the-art sound booths.

Cheryl Simmers is a Sussex County native whose mother, Donna Powell, works at Prince George Electric Cooperative in Waverly. Simmers has been at ARGS since it opened, teaching math and pre-engineering classes. “The kids here are dedicated and very sensitive and have a lot of heart,” she says. It’s doubtful, though, that they have any more heart than she does: In addition to a full teaching load, she also serves as everything from athletic director to freshman and senior class sponsor, to Student Council liaison and yearbook guru. “Faculty members here have to wear a few more hats than at most other schools,” she says with a smile.

She observes that the school’s inherent strength — its gifted, motivated students  — can provide a tenacious test for its teachers. “The giftedness and creativity of the kids make it a challenge at times keeping them on track in the academic areas,” she says, “so we teachers vary assignments, give them more independent work, and stay flexible in trying to keep these very gifted kids on task.

“We try to have a balance between academic rigor and rigor in the arts areas,” Simmers points out, “and it seems to be working.” She notes that several of the ’02 seniors received full scholarships to state colleges, and that all those applying were accepted at respected institutions of higher learning such as University of Richmond, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia State, James Madison, George Mason, and New York University.


This costume was designed by student Victoria Allen and worn by Lauren Clay for the character of "Carmen."

them to the edge,” Simmers says of the school’s approach to learning.

Dr. Raymond Fenn is an experienced stage director who’s been chairman of the Theatre Department since the school opened. He says faculty members work hard to prepare students for the next level: “We structure ourselves like conservatories do. Our students are involved in a hands-on way in all aspects of a stage production. We as faculty try to give the students lots of leeway. We mentor and guide them, and try to set them up for success, both now and in whatever career they pursue.”

The school’s in-the-trenches approach to helping its students grow  as artists was on full display last spring as the school presented the musical “Fame” as its closing theatrical production of the school year. Students built the set (which featured two staircases and a conjoining catwalk), handled the lighting and sound, sold advertising for the printed program, served as ushers and musical accompanists, and of course filled the onstage roles.

It seemed both ironic and appropriate that Virginia’s real-life performing arts school was performing a play inspired by another performing arts school, the one in New York City. It was a case of life (ARGS) imitating art (the play) imitating life (NYC’s performing arts school), if you will. The director of the ARGS production of “Fame” was Kay Ingram, a veteran stage actor and director who’s in her third year teaching theatre arts and music courses at the school. She says the most memorable part of directing “Fame” was “the amazing growth of the student actors and crew. They approached the production with the fervor of pros. I know they will leave here with the tools to succeed, either in college or as professionals.”

Let’s fast-forward 10 years. And let’s say you frequent an art gallery … or go to a regional theatre production … or watch a play on or off Broadway … or attend a concert featuring orchestral music or vocals … or read a poem or short story or novel by a rising Virginia artist. Don’t be surprised if that creative young talent’s gifts were first recognized and nurtured at a school in the heart of Southside Virginia, where art for art’s sake is preached and practiced every day.

 

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