Five minutes and half a dozen steps inside the lobby of this arts-focused public charter middle school, a visitor knows they've entered someplace different, something unlike anything the area has seen before.
Music beckons the visitor down corridors where visual art brightens every passed classroom and around each turned corner. In the main performance hall, lines are learned from curled scripts and dancers glide through their paces.
As a class period ends, students pour from one room into the next, dabs of living liquid paint, shifting and blending into one another. The kids are a cacophony, a mosaic of literature books, sheaves of music, sketches whispering in backpacks. Skin of every hue and eyes of every shade glide under hair in copper ringlets, corkscrew braids or bright pink sheaves.
Welcome to Westwind School of Performing Arts, an educational enclave tucked into a quiet North Little Rock neighborhood near Maumelle.
Approaching the far turn of its first school year, Westwind is home to 66 students in grades six to eight, each plumbing the depths of creativity as a conduit of learning.
"School here is typically very fun," says Farrah Sherman, an eighth-grader from Conway. "I'm studying for a big math test tomorrow, which is really exciting. Also tomorrow, I have a theater skit about Romeo and Juliet that we're performing. So, that's exciting too."
Farrah came to Westwind after being home schooled since fifth grade due to the pandemic and elements her family found missing from the public-school curriculum. But wanting to reconnect with the community aspect of school, she'd toyed with returning to her friends for eighth grade in preparation for high school. That is, until her mother told her about the institution opening up in Maumelle.
"We scheduled a tour of the school and I will tell you, we had not been there five minutes and I knew that's where we were going to end up," says Kristen Dickerson, Farrah's mother and owner of Red Curtain Dance and Red Curtain Theatre in Conway. "I just knew it the moment she started talking. And her passion and her enthusiasm and her excitement and the opportunities she was going to have there were so exciting."
"The school sounded like a dream come true, and really it is, giving me the opportunity to work with some really amazing teachers both in my electives and my core classes," says Farrah, who landed a big part in the school's first-semester musical. "Also, the environment here is just completely different — very open, very accepting. We like to call it the 'weird kids' school' because we're not typical students. A lot of us are academically very strong, and at the same time we're creatives who are very eager to learn and to continue to pursue our passions."
When Theresa Timmons-Shamberger talks, people around here listen, even a gaggle of preteen actors with energy and adrenaline to burn after their first curtain call. Timmons-Shamberger, Westwind's executive director, founded the dream that grew into this school, making her the reason each of the kids is here ... and they know it. She has two voice settings — one of a doting stage mom and one of a twice-deployed Army veteran — and she's not afraid to use either as the situation dictates.
But taken aside, her voice fairly drips with pride in describing the path to get here and the potential she sees in the students.
"I think middle school is kind of the lost grades," she says. "Everybody loves the elementary kids. They're just so lovable. And high school, they're focused at that age and ready to be career-minded. But the middle-school kids are the ones who need the most support, because they're just starting to figure it out.
"I want to support them because they are the most impressionable. When they're in middle school, that's when you can really take them and nurture them. That's also the age they start to go one way or the other."
Timmons-Shamberger grew up in an artistic household in her native Ohio, where members of her mother's side of the family were accomplished violinists. She followed similar artistic pursuits growing up, broadening into choir, flute and dance, continuing the latter during her time at the University of Cincinnati.
But beyond mere extracurricular activity, Timmons-Shamberger also saw firsthand how connecting the arts with core classes could help students see such subject matter in a new light.
"At every level of my education, the arts were always involved," she says. "In elementary school I had teachers who were artists, and they always talked to us intensely about how important the arts were. They really infused the arts into everything in our education as elementary students. I really think that they were ahead of their time."
After a 16-year hitch in the Army — during which time she was twice deployed via Operation Iraqi Freedom — she came to Arkansas and took a corporate gig. Wanting to make a difference, she also volunteered in the community.
"I did some community service here in Little Rock at some schools and started really seeing the deficit in arts in the schools," she says. "I don't blame the schools for not being able to provide the arts; when you have budget constraints, you have to have math, you have to science, English and social studies first. But when you start talking about providing students a well-rounded education, the arts have to be involved."
NOT RESISTANCE, BUT REALITY
Voicing such concerns, Timmons-Shamberger didn't meet resistance as much as reality in the Title I schools where she'd volunteer.
"In talking to a lot of the counselors and superintendents and principals, they'd say, 'You know, Theresa, we really understand how important art is and we agree with what you're saying. But we're just trying to get the kids here,'" she says. " 'We're trying to make sure they have clean clothes and they eat. We're just trying to make sure the basics are taken care of, at this point.'"
After some prayerful reflection, Timmons-Shamberger took up the cause like her Army missions of old. By 2010, she'd established the Timmons Arts Foundation and the next year, she started awarding small scholarships and grants to Title I schools to buy supplies and support other artistic curricula.
From there, the grants got larger, as did Timmons-Shamberger's programming; she launched a four-week summer arts program in 2014 that continues today.
"We do vocal music, visual art, fashion, dance, instrumental music," she says. "Students work on all of those components of the arts and they do a production at the end of the camp. The campers actually play their own musical score throughout the entire musical; they make their own costumes. I mean, they create the entire production themselves."
Timmons-Shamberger carried the success of the summer arts program over into after-school programs and before long, started to see a tangible impact of the foundation's efforts. It was then that her ultimate dream came into view.
"We started to see how arts impacted students in education and how their literacy improved and how their self-esteem improved," she says. "They just became well-rounded students, better individuals, more social, community-minded. That's when we had this idea to start the school."
FROM PROGRAMS TO SCHOOL
Moving from after-school and summer programs to establishing a public charter school was akin to, as the saying goes, stepping up from playing Peoria to opening on Broadway. In addition to reams of paperwork to be approved, the school needed to find a physical home and hire a staff.
But perhaps the stiffest challenge was selling parents on the idea of an arts-informed middle school education, available free as any other public-school option. Bridget Brown was one such parent; her daughter, Rylee Grant, attended the arts summer camp and came home to inform her mother about the school that was opening.
"I made it my priority to find out more," Brown says. "I was like, 'Listen, I need to know what this school entails. Is there tuition? Are there books to buy?' They pretty much explained to me that is not the case. I was so surprised."
Rylee not only enrolled at Westwind, she has blossomed into multiple artistic endeavors, including landing the lead in the school musical. More importantly, she has found an educational model that harnesses her artistic talent as a component of learning.
"The classes are smaller and she gets more one-on-one with her teachers," Brown says. "When Rylee was in the Little Rock School District, it was kind of like the assignments were the same for all, and all she could do was the standard writing. But here, she can write a paper in history ... She can also draw and tell a story with her art. She loves that.
"Today she came home and she made A/B Honor Roll whereas before, she had a hard time in math, because there were so many kids in the class and she felt like she was trying to compete and be on the same level as everybody else. But when she's in this class, everybody is on the same page."
"One of the things that is so unique at Westwind is the way that they teach and the way that they learn," Dickerson agrees. "The assignments they're giving are so different. They're not just working on technique as far as grammar and spelling and analytical research and things like that. They are allowed to explore topics that truly resonate with them. That's one thing that certainly has helped Farrah. She is so excited about the way they present things that she's fully engaged the entire time. She loves learning now."
Still, as Timmons-Shamberger explains, communication is nearly constant when approaching new groups of parents to sell the school's unique approach.
"We're constantly telling people we're a public charter, we have standard core classes — English, math, social studies and science," she says. "We just really try to get out there and tell people about the school. Even with some of our brand messaging, people are like, 'Oh, we just thought this was like a school where kids just went and danced and sang.' We're like, 'No, it's an actual school where they learn the other stuff.'
"They always say the best thing is word of mouth, so we encourage our parents to get out and talk about it, and they do. But we're still working on that because as a performing arts school it's new to the community and people don't quite understand it yet. It's going to take time."
POLISHING THE DIAMONDS
In the 1980 movie "Fame," the character of Leroy, a dancer with a rough background, makes it into the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. There, he stands out from the talented performance crowd while struggling in the classroom under the burden of illiteracy. He ultimately succeeds for the love of his art and through the unyielding intercession of a gruff English teacher.
Not every student who comes to Westwind faces similar circumstances or challenges, but Timmons-Shamberger holds a soft spot in her heart for those who do. Her dream for the place — what she sells to parents, community partners and the faculty of 12 alike — is to consistently bring out the best in each student, both artistically and academically.
"I walk through the hallways all the time. So much so, that I get in trouble because I'm supposed to be back in my office doing reports," she says. "I just see so much potential in so many of them. I have a creative [student] that came over here from North Little Rock and he's rough around the edges. He came here and I went into theater class one day and he was leading the acting class. And later that day, I heard him talking to one of the other creatives and he said, 'We didn't have anything like this in my old school. We get to act!' He was just so excited and I've seen a total change in him.
"To me, it goes back to the saying, 'They can't be what they don't see.' If they don't know that they can be actors and actresses and singers and dancers, there's so much in them that you can pull out here. I live for them, you know?"