How One Connecticut School Went From Funeral Parlor to Top Arts School in the Nation

Nov 11, 2014

Students at the school work to discover their talents, and then learn a process to develop them.

Nearly 20 years ago, I made my first visit to the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts at its original site, just past Colt Park in Hartford, heading south on Wethersfield Avenue.

I pulled into a parking lot protected by a tall, chain-linked fence. It acted like a divider between a worn-out apartment building in the deteriorating neighborhood, and the old funeral parlor that had been resurrected as Hartford’s arts magnet high school.

The school has come a long way since then. Last month, it was honored as the nation’s top arts school by the Arts Schools Network.

"Once On This Island" rehearsal in old funeral parlor, 1995
Credit GHAA

As I walked around front in those early days, I wasn’t sure what to make of the school. To my memory, there wasn’t even a sign with the school’s name. Funky panes of colored glass gave off a meditative vibe, a reminder that this was once a mortuary. This was a curious twist: a place for grief was converted into a community that requires soul.

Inside the doors, and just past the teacher’s lounge, a short hallway brought me to the building’s hub. Two pristine dance studios made a no-nonsense statement: this is where we begin. I still remember the expressions on several young dancers as they gripped the barre. Their postures evoked tenacity, concentration, and pride. 

Upstairs and beyond, a maze of tiny classrooms behind rickety doors were already in action. Although each space appeared far too small to adequately train anyone really serious about the performing arts-- they were bursting with energy and questions and curiosity.

It didn’t take more than one short visit to recognize that this tiny arts school -- this diamond in the rough -- had more than enough soul.

Fall Showcase, 2013
Credit GHAA

Now approaching its 30th year, the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, a program of the Capital Region Education Council, has gracefully evolved. Today it serves nearly 800 students from 60 school districts. Students can attend either full-day or half-day programs on two spacious campuses: at the Learning Corridor near Trinity College, and the Colt Gateway building, not too far from those original digs where 53 high school students first launched the Academy in 1985.

Music Department students
Credit GHAA

The Arts Schools Network, which bestowed the honor of top arts school, is an international organization devoted to arts education, and at its annual conference held this year in Denver, Colorado, Academy Principal Jeff Ostroff and Kim Stroud, Director of the Arts accepted the prestigious award.

“It means a lot to be recognized by ASN,” Ms. Stroud told me. “This is the largest, if not only, international organization specifically for schools such as ours. To receive this annual award that is only given to one school as recognition by schools like ours, across the nation and beyond, is huge for us. It is validating to feel that we are offering stellar arts education in these times of dwindling and disappearing support.”

The award recognizes GHAA’s stand out record of overall excellence, including faculty and student achievement, community recognition and involvement, arts and academics integration, curriculum innovations, and continuing growth and development.

Zoë Lerman (R) and Patrick Matheiu (L), A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theatre Department
Credit GHAA
Visual Arts Classes
Credit GHAA

Stroud explained a critical difference that sets the Academy apart from most other ASN arts schools. "Unlike so many of our peers, we do not audition," she said. "We offer classes for beginners and nurture them to college preparedness. We audition for all shows across departments and we also offer classes across departments to allow our students to explore their many talents."

Discovering one’s talents, and then learning the process to develop them, is one of the biggest challenges for students attending the arts magnet. The journey includes risk-taking, rigorous training, and learning to collaborate openly within a diverse and sometimes competitive community. It’s a lot to juggle when you are also trying to fit in, keep up with academics, and just be a teenager.

There are also plenty of false perceptions about what talent really means; and what it takes to make it within your respective creative field.

For senior theatre major Zoë Lerman, the Academy helped her re-consider her entire take on what acting was all about, and it didn’t click-in until her junior year. But once it did, “my understanding of my art and myself deepened,” she said. “Every day, I found more of myself, both socially and artistically.”

At one time, Lerman was convinced that to become a successful artist meant losing herself within her acting; “to be someone else.” Then, with the encouragement of her theater teacher Jonathan Gilman, she began to redirect her energy and bring more of herself into her acting work and her characters.

"I no longer lose myself on stage," she said. "I stopped being afraid of finding and showing myself. I learned to be proud of who I am – my successes as well as my failures.  Acting has made me comfortable in my skin, and I will continue to boldly embrace my self-discoveries."

A performance of "A Midsummer Nights Dream," including student Matt Bump, at right.
Credit GHAA

Fall Showcase, 2013
Credit GHAA

Gilman, theater chair and one of the senior faculty members who helped launch the Academy back in 1985, echoed Lerman’s realization when he shared this with me in an email: "Everyone (here) is different," he said. "More specifically, people at the Academy are encouraged to discover who they are, and to be themselves—because you can’t be an artist without that."

In addition to fostering self-discovery and personal growth as a means to unearthing one’s talents, students are directed toward becoming engaged citizens. In supporting that mission, the school generates opportunities for students to use their art to impact the community.

As an example, one long-time program at the school involves performance of dramatic scenes dealing with important social, family, and personal issues that affect adolescents. A company of student actors must complete an intensive training program in diversity awareness, and then have a chance to tour area schools to perform their originally written plays.

Matt Bump, an Academy senior involved with the program, called Looking In, has personally felt the healing power of the arts by reaching out to other kids. By writing and performing about his own real-life experiences with bullying, he’s been able to impact thousands of peers who relate to his personal story and challenges.

The school has come a long way from its early years of music lessons in former embalming rooms, little more than a simple dance floor to hold all-school assemblies or prepare for a major musical. "The Academy has helped me become passionate about life and everything about it," Bump said. "It's given me a place to appreciate art and the beauty of life, and how I can help to make others see the world the way I see it."