Recently renamed Denzel Washington School of the Arts will graduate first class this year, anticipates expansion to 500 students
Mount Vernon’s performing and visual arts school has a new iconic name from a native son, will graduate its first class of seniors in June, and will continue its trajectory of growth of students. The Denzel Washington School of the Arts (DWSA) at the Nellie Thornton Campus has a very bright future.
The performing and visual arts school began just six years ago as the Mount Vernon Performing and Visual Arts Magnet Program (PVAM), led by Dr. Evelyn Collins. It was renamed last summer after actor, director and producer Denzel Washington, a former resident of Mount Vernon and alum of the school when it was named Washington Junior High. DWSA, is now positioned to grow from its current 425 students to a maximum of 500 students.
Dr. Collins, a strong proponent of arts education, stated, “The school assists students with discovering and nurturing their unique talents, while utilizing an arts framework to support success in academic classes. By experiencing success in the arts, students transfer their creative skills to the classroom to build and support the cognitive framework and affective mindset necessary to nurture strong readers, mathematicians, thinkers, and learners.”
“The Mount Vernon City School District is honored to partner with Denzel Washington on the renaming of our performing and visual arts school,” Superintendent Dr. Kenneth R. Hamilton said. “We are excited to see this partnership develop. Having come from Mount Vernon, he is an excellent role model for our youth and sets the stage for high standards and excellence in the arts and entertainment.”
PVAM began in 2015 as a summer bridge program at Grimes Elementary School and opened as a full school-year program that fall at Benjamin Turner Middle School for 60 sixth- and seventh-grade students. The program grew one grade a year. It was housed for two years at Mount Vernon High School and then moved and was housed in the Nellie Thornton High School for the last two years. This year, the Denzel Washington School of the Arts (DWSA) has 425 students in grades 6 to 12 and a dedicated building. In June, it will celebrate the first graduating class of the arts school.
“For students interested in the arts, having a curriculum and a school that is enriched in the arts will make a major difference in their journey,” said Dr. Collins, who is also DWSA’s principal. “Our school is only six years old and already top colleges are contacting us to encourage our students to take a look at their university. These kids are brilliant. They are taking AP courses, they are taking college courses, they are taking honors courses, all in addition to a rigorous sequence in the arts.”
With the help of funding from the $108 million bond referendum tied to the 20/20 Vision for Academic Excellence, the school building has undergone reconstruction and renovations to improve the facilities and transform the building into a premier arts school. Improvements include a renovation of the auditorium (dedicated in 2019 as the Phylicia Rashad Auditorium after the actress and Mount Vernon resident), a 150-seat experimental theatre, a new dance studio, enhanced vocal and instrumental music rooms, visual arts studios, and updated science classrooms.
The mission of DWSA is “to create a focused and high-performing culture that prepares students for success in college and conservatories and enhances passion for the performing and visual arts through a rigorous college prep curriculum and a sequenced program in the performing and visual arts.”
The school was officially renamed the Denzel Washington School of the Arts by the Board of Education last summer.
“The arts are crucial in the education of all students,” Washington said. “The skills learned are lifelong. What’s important is to encourage participation and make the tools available to provide those students the opportunity to grow and learn.”
“Denzel Washington’s commitment to the arts, contribution to the community and higher education, perseverance, tenacity, pride, humanity, and commitment to family will serve as a guide and pathway for the students’ growth, both artistically and academically,” Dr. Collins said.
“Denzel Washington is from Mount Vernon. The kids remind him of him as he was a child in the Mount Vernon City School District,” Dr. Collins said. “He attended Washington Middle School, which later became Nellie A. Thornton High School. Mr. Washington learned of the quality of work that we were producing from Phylicia Rashad who has been in attendance for many productions and also led a master class on August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom after our production of the play. Mr. Washington recently produced Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for NETFLIX and was in production when he spoke with me. He was impressed that we had produced such a complicated play.”
The school has established partnerships with the performing arts centers at Purchase College in addition to Juilliard, Concordia Conservatory, the Harlem School of the Arts, Theatre Development Funds (TDF) and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Dr. Collins has set ambitious goals for DWSA. She wants to see it become a Blue-Ribbon School, which would meet standards of academic excellence set by the U.S. Department of Education, in addition to becoming recognized as an Exemplary Arts School by the Arts School Network.
The school is open to all families residing in Mount Vernon. All students audition in theatre, vocal music, dance, instrumental music, or the visual arts, and must display talent in their chosen arts discipline. Also, parents are interviewed, and students submit letters of recommendation as well as their latest report card. Students are also administered an assessment in math and English. “I want our school to be a place of pride and an exemplary option in public education for families in Mount Vernon,” she said. “I want them to know their children are receiving a private school education in a public-school setting.”
She also said she wants her students to simply excel and do great work both artistically and academically. “I aspire for them to perform on Broadway, on TV and in films, release albums, perform at the Met, have major shows at galleries and museums around the country, and play in orchestras and jazz bands,” she said. “And, when someone asks them, ‘You’re from Mount Vernon, so where did you attend school?’ They will proudly say, ‘The Denzel Washington School of the Arts.”
The school will host the premier of its Spring Arts Showcase 2021 at 6 p.m., on Thursday, April 8th via YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNy6aeDKoxI). The program may be viewed afterward at this YouTube link. Over 100 students in the school rehearsed over Zoom during the pandemic with their instructors in theatre, musical theatre, dance, tap dance, vocal music, orchestra, band and the visual arts. The outcome of their artistry is reflected in this recorded Arts Showcase. It was taped over two-days in the school’s Phylicia Rashad Auditorium. It was produced by Dr. Collins. Teachers include Angela Hall, Monica Johnson, Jennifer Jackson, Normearleasa Thomas, Mansa Gory, Janet Rush, Joseph Dempsey, Dormeshia, and Yvonne Wright.