At the Vineville Academy of the Arts in Macon, Georgia, principal Kristy Graham’s office is located in a converted conference room in the school’s lobby. Instead of walls, her office is lined with windows, so that she can see each of the school’s 585 students – if she’s not already in the lobby greeting and hugging them.
If Vineville Academy students are “singing and dancing their way through the educational process,” as Graham describes it, it would be difficult to find better people than Graham and her expert team to lead the parade of excitement and achievement.
As a public magnet school, Vineville Academy focuses on the fine arts, such as dance, drama, orchestra, and art. To bring those subjects to life, Graham hires teachers who not only know the subjects they teach, but who are living those subjects each and every day. For example, the dance teacher is a ballerina. The strings teacher is a current member of the Macon Pops. The drum teacher is a folk singer.
Sometimes you have to be patient to find the right teacher for your school culture, says Graham, but it’s not difficult to find gifted artists and performers when you’re as involved in the community as Vineville is. Staff and students regularly partner with the city’s historic society, the 567 Center for Renewal, Leadership Macon and other community organizations.
“You meet so many people and it makes it so much easier to say, ‘Hey, we’re really looking for a dynamic person who’s going to drive our children with a new rock band,’” explains Graham. “Then your partners step up and they help you find these amazing people.”
As those amazing people step into the classroom, students who are discovering a love for music, drama, and dance find their enthusiasm matched by their teachers. This positive energy spreads, not only making an impact on children’s lives, but also the lives of their parents.
“Their eyes just light up when they see that their child is now succeeding because [the arts] are something that matters to that child and it’s an intrinsic desire in their hearts to be an artist or dancer or singer or performer,” she describes. “You see that the parent has chosen a school that matters to them and matters to their child and that makes all the difference in the world.”
For many of Vineville’s students, performing arts are truly what dreams are made of, and the school has found a way to express that charisma through an unlikely mascot: a panda. While the black-and-white bear may look cuddly, there’s more to him than mere cuteness.
“It’s Performing Arts Nurture Dreams, Academics, and Success,” Graham says. “ And that spells PANDAS. So that’s how we became the pandas and of course it has taken off.”
One little glimpse into the spirit of “Panda Nation,” as Vineville students and staff call the school, is the tradition is PAWS, which stands for “people all watching students.” Every morning as students come to school, teachers and staff make the time to greet and high-five students, supporting them whether they’re smiling or whether they’ve had a rough car-ride to school.
Whether it is students receiving high-fives, learning about opera, or waving to their principal on the way into school, it is inspiring how Panda Nation radiates energy and enthusiasm, so much so that Graham says she has the best job in the world.
“We’re on such a growth path here and the school and the community is supporting us,” she adds. “It’s amazing how it changes a place when you know parents are choosing you and you’re able to provide that unique learning experience for their child and it makes them happy.”
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