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'I dance through the hallways'

December 7, 2017

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

When Sherrie Fair and her family moved to Rutherford County 13 years ago, she never imagined teaching.

Her husband took a job in Brentwood and the family settled in Smyrna.

They enrolled their daughter in school at Thurman Francis Arts Academy, and a short time later, Fair enrolled herself in a master’s program at Lipscomb University in nearby Nashville.

Being a parent of a Thurman Francis student inspired the onetime Texan to teach.

“Coming at it from a mom and then an instructor,” Fair said, “this is too good of a place not to work.”

The school also excited Heather Reedy.

Reedy, who was a recent graduate from Marshall University and had been teaching dance since the seventh grade, saw the dance classroom and thought, “Oh my gosh.”

The room had a hardwood dance floor, mirrored walls and a sound system.

Eight years later, Reedy described Thurman Francis as “an amazing community of parents and faculty. I feel like it’s a family.”

“We’re living our dreams,” said Fair, who has also been at the school for eight years. “We love what we do.”

Reedy added, “Yeah. I dance through the hallways.”

Reedy and Fair were drawn to the school for personal reasons, but both agree Thurman Francis is special because “it has something for everyone.”

Thurman Francis is one of three magnet schools – along with McFadden School of Excellence and Central Magnet School – offering a choice program to Rutherford County residents. The district also provides choice offerings at Oakland High School with its International Baccalaureate program, at Homer Pittard Campus School and Holloway High School.

Applications are currently available at Thurman Francis and online. Completed forms along with teacher recommendations, attendance records and test scores are due by the end of January.

While academics determine a student’s eligibility, the arts programs separate the school from every other school in the district, said Principal Jeff McCann, who is in second year at the school.

Thurman Francis is the only elementary school in Rutherford County with a strings program and students are allowed to pursue band sooner than other schools, he explained.

There’s also drama and musical theater for middle schoolers to go along with dance and visual arts for all grades. And they also offer chorus.

All of which come together at the end of every quarter to stage a performing art show in the gymnasium because, as Fair noted, having an auditorium is only a dream.

Reedy added, “We need a stage so we can excel as an arts academy.”

Even with a lack of an auditorium, Fair said the arts programs “are still getting there.”

“I completely agree,” said Reedy. “The art department is something I’ve never seen in another school.”

McCann — who previously opened LaVergne Lake Elementary as principal and before that he was the principal at Roy Waldron Elementary — personally looks forward to the “lavish spring performances,” he said. Last year, the school performed Aladdin, and this coming spring they’re performing Annie.

Fair, who teaches English language arts for middle school and is the drama teacher, said the instructors for the spring performance are specialists.

For instance, Reedy will help with choreography and Michael Thiemann will help with the music.

“Arts is our focus here,” said McCann, while the vision of Thurman Francis “is to provide a well-rounded education for each child through a dynamic curriculum enriched by the arts.”

Students don’t need to audition or even have special talent to attend. Candidates get in based on academic achievement. They’re akin to gifted students with IQ scores of 116, 118 and up. Beginning in second grade, they’re also given a cognitive abilities test that provides the administration with a trio of IQ-like scores.

Students start speaking Spanish in kindergarten and by the time they’re in eighth grade, students are taking a high school level Spanish I course.

“To be bilingual at all, in our world, is a big deal,” said Reedy, whose husband is Native American. “When they get to college, they’re going to be just thriving.”

After school, students participate in Junior BETA, robotics and other academically driven clubs and organizations like math club and computer broadcasting.

“It leaves a student well rounded when they leave Thurman Francis,” said Fair, who has also seen students come to the school because of its accelerated education and then wind up thriving in the arts too.

On more than one occasion, students arrived shy the first year but by the end of their second year, there were emceeing a performance at the school.

“Our arts program inspires them to be more confident,” Reedy said, who also noted an uptick in desire and drive among students.

Fair added, “They’re excited.”

Students also learn to be advocates and how to present any ideas or concerns to faculty and administration. For example, McCann met with a group of girls who successfully presented him with the idea of hosting a father-daughter dance for K-5.

“Our kids have some of the best ideas ever,” said McCann, who went on to explain that teachers are chosen because they have pursued education for the right reasons.

“They have to love kids,” added McCann, who began his career in education as a band director for 13 years. “You need to have a passion for what you do.”

He’s the first principal at Thurman Francis Arts Academy with a background in the arts.

Reedy said she’s never experienced another art department like the one they’ve developed at Thurman Francis and it has impacted the energy in other classrooms too. Much like the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, teachers often use music and dancing as part of their academic curriculum.

“The best is yet to be,” Fair said. “We feel like it’s on the cusp of exploding.”

PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT