March 9, 2017
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
The annual spring musical means as much to Siegel High School as the state title won by the baseball team last spring.
“If you talk to people around the state,” Siegel Principal Larry Creasy said, “they’re going to know us for our fine arts program.”
Yeah, the spring musical is the cornerstone for an arts program that Lindsay Halford, fine arts coordinator for Rutherford County Schools, referred to as “a big deal.”
This year is the first time since the school opened that choir instructor Brenda Gregory has been able to stage Ragtime, which is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow.
Until now, Gregory has never been able to fill the title role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., because the part calls for an African American with a baritone voice.
Despite his tall lanky frame, the Walker character also needed to have a full vocal range to go along with his equally big voice.
Those qualities were found in senior Caleb Mitchell.
Last year’s senior class was the first to suggest him and urge Gregory to at least think about staging Ragtime.
Mitchell described Walker as a piano-playing young man in his early 20s. Walker had left town and traveled before returning home and discovering the woman, Sarah, he would have married if he had never left, was a young mother. And, yes, Walker is the father.
Mitchell, who relates to the character he was cast to portray, said he and Walker are relatively close in age.
Both are good at heart.
Neither mean to cause any harm but have made mistakes.
“It’s fun,” said Mitchell, who sort of laughed but mostly cringed. “I get to act like I know how to play the piano.”
Gregory added, “It’s a story about how people become melded together.”
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That could easily describe Siegel High School.
Opened in 2003, the property the school was built on was donated – along with land for two others – by Richard Siegel, as stated in his last will and testament.
The school has a total of 1,760 kids in grades 9-12.
What makes the school unique is the administration, staff, teachers and students pay as much attention to academics and arts as they do athletics, Creasy said.
“I call it the three A’s,” said Creasy, who recently cheered the school’s bowling team during the state tournament the same as he has for last year's baseball team, which won the state title. “That’s what the public sees and that’s what they remember – the athletics – and we do want our kids to enjoy their high school career, but at the same time we’ve got to remember what the main reason is to keep our doors open.”
Be it academics, arts or athletics, it’s about the post-secondary success of their students.
And it starts and ends with students in the classroom.
“We are the No. 1 non-magnet school in our county for our ACT scores last year,” said Nivia Serrano, an assistant principal at Siegel High School. She created a 30+ wall in the hallways to acknowledge the students who have achieved 30 or better on their ACT tests.
There are currently 10 students pictured on the wall. An 11th student earned a spot, but transferred when their parents moved.
With an average score of 21.8, Creasy said Siegel boasts “the highest ACT scores at a traditional high school in the county.”
In addition to the 30+ photos, the school also displays a large banner with the names of all the students who have scored 21 points or better. Serrano credited a school-wide collaborative effort for the increase in test scores. Among those making an impact was AP teacher Kenny Mosier, who led strategy sessions with students.
“We are all in this together,” Serrano said, who also lauded the school’s athletics director Greg Wyant and graduation coach Shawn Middleton for their ability “to build relationships and light a fire under kids.”
She added, “It’s impressive.”
Those scores have led to 66 percent of their students going on to higher education, which is 11 percent higher than the “Drive to 55” initiative started by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
“That’s what I want people to know,” Creasy said.
Serrano said the DECA program is extraordinary as well as the course offerings for career and technical education. Their hope is that whether it’s through dual enrollment or one of the 23 Advanced Placement courses Siegel offers, they would like every graduate of Siegel High School to have “some college credits.”
However, their focus isn’t simply with students who excel academically.
Serrano said “helping all kids – not just the top kids – find their niche for after high school” is a priority.
English instructor Bethany Martz said the key is connecting with students.
“It’s really just about talking to kids,” Martz explained, “and not just about homework. It’s more than, ‘Welcome to my class, now get out your homework.’”
Martz said it’s about establishing common ground.
Some students are passionate about sports. Others are passionate about the arts. Finding that connection ultimately makes it easier for staff and administrators to inspire that same passion in the classroom.
Creasy talked about a senior, who until connecting with a particular teacher his junior year, was disengaged and clearly did not enjoy his first two years of high school. But having made one connection made all the difference and this particular student has become one of his favorites to see walking the halls.
“One person can change their lives completely,” Creasy said, “We’ve got to connect with each and every one of them because we could be the best thing that happens in their lives.”
“That’s the reward,” said Serrano, who recalled a senior from the Class of 2016.
This student had been in constant trouble as a sophomore, and Serrano, who has been at Siegel for six years and has 20 years in education, took it as a personal challenge to help the student turn things around.
It brought tears to her eyes seeing the pride in the student on graduation day last May.
“This is why teachers become teachers,” said Serrano, who choked up with emotions, “it’s to help these kids.”
That’s precisely why the fine arts program is also of the utmost importance at Siegel.
“We want to make sure we have well-rounded kids,” Serrano said.
“We want to be the total package,” Creasy said, “and that goes back to the three A’s. We are well-known for our arts program.”
“If you look at Siegel in particular, you can see that they really invested in their fine arts,” said Halford, who referenced studies that indicate students involved in the arts tend to improve grades. “It tethers them to the school and helps them to really invest in their own education.”
“It’s no accident that kids involved in the arts program and the music program are scoring significantly higher on all the standardized testing,” said Alex White, music and band instructor. “In my opinion, one of the reasons why we’re successful is because we’re constantly looking at what we can do better, what we can offer, and as great as we are, we’re never satisfied with it.”
The Siegel band program has earned a litany of awards and honors.
Among a laundry list that stretches more than a page long, the highlights include being a three-time Grand Champion and two-time Reserve Grand Champion at the annual Contest of Champions.
They also earned two Proclamations of Excellence from the Tennessee State Legislature, superior ratings at the MTSBOA concert performance assessment, TMEA state concert festival and the Grand National Adjudicators Invitational Festival.
“We’ve established a culture and expectation,” White said. “As we get new students they want to live up to that tradition.”
“Like Alex said, we’re never complacent,” said Gregory, whose choir recently achieved straight superior scores in performance and sight-reading at the Middle Tennessee Vocal Association’s Adjudication Festival, “and we always try to make it better and to emulate the best.”
They’ve also performed at the National Principals Conference, and the Tennessee Music Education Association asked them to perform at an event for the Tennessee Legislature.
And naturally, in the past, the spring musical has been well-respected at the Middle Tennessee Music Theater Awards.
This year’s production of Ragtime is an especially challenging vocal performance.
“It’s a lot harder music and so it kind of challenges us music-wise,” said senior Mikayla Wesley, who is part of the ensemble, “and then having to act with the meaning of the story behind it.”
“The first time I listened to it the first thing that hit my mind was this is really a voice-strong show,” said Mitchell, who unlike Wesley hopes to pursue a singing and acting career.
“There are more avenues for kids to participate in the arts in college than there are in athletics,” Halford said.
In preparing for opening night, which is March 14, Wesley said she spends time alone in her bedroom visualizing the perfection of the final performance which isn’t until March 18.
“I think of it as something grand and big because the musical has these huge numbers in it that can make the show,” Wesley described. “I just picture it being perfect.”
Mitchell quickly added, “My picture is kind of the exact same thing that she says. Really grand. Really big. In this musical there are literally numbers that will bring the house down and we have this incredible cast that actually loves this musical, and they’re putting their full body into this.
“I picture us tearing the house down.”
Martz said not only do arts students succeed in the classroom, the athletes do as well.
“They have to be interconnected,” Martz said. “We have football players who might have a lead role in choir. You have to see the big picture of how they’re all connected.”
“It’s a three-way street,” said Creasy, referring again to the three A’s, “but it’s all coming into one.”
Martz, who makes it a point to see each of her students perform on stage or on the field at least once, said the three A’s are braided as one.
Creasy said Siegel won two of the first three years The Daily News Journal handed out an All-Sports Trophy to the top high school athletic department in Rutherford County, which was bolstered by eight different teams advancing to state competition.
The school – student body, staff and administrators alike – are not any more-proud of the successes in primary sports – for example, football and basketball – than they are of the successes the bowling and volleyball teams have had.
Baseball won a state title last year, while the softball team was the runner-up for the state title.
Creasy noted the volleyball team has advanced to the state tournament all three years he’s been at the school. He said the cross country team is strong as well.
They’re simply proud to wear a Siegel Star across their chest.
Be it the stage, the court or the field, and especially the classroom, those associated with Siegel High School are “proud to be a Siegel Star” and are forever connected socially with the hashtag #P2BASS.
“The only reason our doors are open is to give our students great academic success in the classroom,” Creasy said, “and prepare them for later on in life.
“A great education is going to take them further in life than anything.”
PHOTO CREDITS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Main Photo: Mikayla Wesley rehearses with the choir for the upcoming performance of Ragtime. Photo Two: Choir instructor Brenda Gregory leads the Ragtime ensemble during a recent rehearsal. Photo Three: Caleb Mitchell was cast in the principal role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. Photo Four: The cast of Ragtime rehearse.