Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Cab Calloway School of the Arts overcame a bumpy beginning to become, according to one parent, almost perfect
When the Red Clay Consolidated School district announced in 1992 that it would launch a Creative and Performing Arts Middle School, it wasn’t hard to find students to start refilling a mostly empty building that then housed the dying Wilmington High School.
“Some thought it was going to be a breeze, that all they had to do was sing and dance all day,” recalls Sally McBride, a Red Clay parent who served on the committee that helped found the school.
As it turned out, the school’s curriculum developed with as much substance as style, and this year there’s plenty of singing and dancing going on as what has become the Cab Calloway School of the Arts is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Indeed, visitors should not be surprised to observe art students painting in the hallways, musicians playing pianos in the lobby, or a trio bursting out of a classroom and breaking into song in the middle of a class period.
There’s a certain irony to the origin of the school, opened a few years before the lifting of a federal court desegregation order for northern New Castle County schools. In the desegregation era, Wilmington High’s enrollment declined sharply, largely because white families in the nearby blue-collar suburban areas chose to send their children to private or parochial schools.
In search of a solution, a group of Red Clay School Board members, administrators and parents hopped on a train to New York City and found their answer in, of all places, Harlem, recognized as a major African-American residential, cultural and business center since the early 20th century.
As they visited a classroom in a middle school whose curriculum blended academic subjects with the performing arts, “the kids were practicing for a musical, and their work was so good, so powerful, that tears ran from our eyes,” recalls Bill Manning, once the legal counsel to former Gov. Pete du Pont and then president of the Red Clay School Board.
Creating a new school, even in an existing building, in a mere six months or so proved quite a challenge. There were lots of startup issues—textbooks not arriving on time, the transformation of a spare closet into a library, to name just two.
Separate Board of Directors
But the middle school came together well, due in no small measure to dedicated parents and enthusiastic support from the local arts community. It helped too that Red Clay, recognizing the unique character of its new magnet school, created a separate board of directors that functioned as a mini school board.
As the school was opening, its leaders realized that Cab Calloway, the legendary singer and bandleader, was living at Cokesbury Village retirement community in Hockessin. They invited him to the school’s ribbon-cutting in November 1992. Soon after, his daughter, Cabella Calloway Langsam, joined the school’s board of directors. A year later, the Red Clay Board of Education renamed the school in Calloway’s honor.
After the bandleader’s death in 1994, Langsam remained involved with the school until she moved to Arizona several years ago. Today, photos, paintings and other Calloway memorabilia—most of them donated by Langsam—adorn many of the school’s walls.
In its first three years, the middle school blossomed, and parents urged Red Clay to expand the program to include a high school. That occurred in 1997, but the first couple of years were rocky.
Enrollment wasn’t large enough to sustain a broad high school curriculum, so academic options were limited, and hardly rigorous. “If you’ve only got 29 seniors, you can’t offer six Advanced Placement courses,” says Julie Rumschlag, who took over as the school’s dean in 1999.
Red Clay adopted a velvet glove approach toward the high school program. Rumschlag remembers being told, in essence, “you have to make it work or we’re going to close the high school.” But the school board also gave her additional resources to beef up academics.
To supplement what the district provides, Cab’s original board of directors has morphed into a separate entity, the Cab Calloway School Fund, which serves as a fundraising organization, providing enough money each year to pay for two staff positions and to help purchase musical instruments and other equipment.
As the pieces came together, Cab has evolved into a top-performing academic school, with its emphasis on the arts perfectly complementing the science and math-focused Charter School of Wilmington, with whom it shares the old Wilmington High Building.
Because of their strong reputations, “students at both schools inspire each other to work harder,” McBride says.
And there are partnerships and synergies as well. Cab students participate on Charter athletic teams, and Charter students can try out for roles in Cab’s theater productions. Cab’s marching band performs at Charter’s football games. If there’s an extra seat in a class Charter offers, a Cab student can register, and vice versa. Besides taking all the courses needed to meet the state’s graduation requirements, Cab students can choose from nine majors: dance, digital media and communication arts, instrumental music, piano, strings, technical theater, theater arts, visual arts and vocal music.
Getting into the school is a challenge. Students have to take “assessments” in two of those major areas before even qualifying for the admissions lottery, which is conducted according to the rules of the state’s choice enrollment system.
“The quality of the dancers has really changed,” says Allyson Cohen-Sherlock, who began teaching at Cab the year the high school opened. “There are 14 or 15 spots open every year, and I see maybe 100 people [at the assessments].”
Overall, Cab enrolls 940 students in grades 6-12. From the students who complete the assessments and apply for the lottery, about one-third are admitted, Rumschlag says.
Parents appreciate the way the school integrates the arts into its regular academic subjects.
“They put on a one-act play in their history class. That makes it easier for them to learn,” says Erin Lacey, who has daughters in sixth and seventh grades. “My sixth-grader had to write a parody song for an English assignment. She’s writing poetry and she doesn’t even know it.”
Piano teacher Margaret Badger’s children began attending Cab well before she joined the faculty in 2012. As a parent, she was impressed by faculty members and their care for and dedication to students. “When I joined the faculty, I found that that passion is real. Every teacher is extremely committed to their subject,” she says.
Dan Kafader was a visual arts major at Cab, graduating in 2003. He came back as a science teacher after working at schools in Philadelphia and in Cecil County, Md. He offers a personal example that “our graduates can pursue a lot of different things—not only arts careers, but also careers in science and math.”
James Mikijanic, who teaches technical theater and manages the school’s theater (the old Wilmington High auditorium was gutted several years ago and rebuilt with state-of-the-art equipment ideal for both performances and instruction), says he enjoys working at Cab because “the students who come here want to be here. That’s not always the case now in education.”
On a Monday morning, he says, “sometimes a teacher will want to ask the class how their weekend was, and someone will ask if we can’t get on with the lesson.”
Senior theater major Megan Allen says she chose to attend Cab because “I knew it was a really good academic school as well as an arts school.”
She has found many opportunities to pursue interesting activities that aren’t possible at most high schools, like co-writing a play with one or her classmates and taking a class in stage combat, which Mikijanic describes as “how to create safe but realistic-looking violence on stage – with hand-to-hand combat, knives, rapiers and swords.”
With experiences like these, “there’s no such thing as a typical Cab experience,” says Kuno Haimbodi, president of the senior class.
The school “invites you to learn and think from multiple perspectives,” he told the audience in the theater nearly filled for an anniversary celebration in late September. “And, apart from the basement mice and the occasional cockroach, I have enjoyed every single moment of it.”
Teachers too have to deal with multiple perspectives.
Badger, the piano teacher, finds that her greatest challenge is “individualizing … trying to find the perfect piece for each of 150 kids.” There are 24 pianos in her classroom, each one equipped with a switch that lets students hear what they’re playing through headphones without disturbing each other’s concentration. One September morning, students were playing jazz waltzes, classic rock and Chopin.
On the other hand, Cohen-Sherlock’s challenge with her dance classes is teaching them to work as an ensemble. Most of her students have taken lessons at private dance schools for years, learning different ways to perform the same moves. “They have to learn how to work together,” she says.
And, she notes, there’s a lot more to dance instruction than teaching the right moves. “We do psychology of dance, anatomy, nutrition and eating disorders,” she says, “and a lot of boot camp cardio. You need a strong core and strong posture.”
Some of those attributes were evident at the anniversary celebration.
Ethan Hunter Raysor, a 2012 graduate who dances with the First State Ballet, covered most of the stage in a brief performance of “Blue Bird Variation from Sleeping Beauty,” while senior pianist Shane VanNeerden dominated the keyboard with Franz Liszt’s “Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto.”
While the school is too young to have produced its own Cab Calloway, some of its graduates have already launched promising careers. Jeremy O’Keefe, a member of the first middle school class, and 2004 graduate Bridget Matthews are both in Los Angeles, working in the film industry. Nick LaMedica, a 2006 graduate, is a professional actor in St. Louis, and Megan Hellman, a 2000 graduate who formerly danced with the Baltimore City Ballet, is now teaching dance at a college in Florida.
As Kafader noted, not every graduate seeks a theatrical or artistic career, but most put the skills they learned at Cab to good use.
One example is Sarah McBride, a 2009 graduate, who last year became the first transgender individual to speak at a national political convention. She is now national spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign.
Sally McBride, Sarah’s mother, has remained close to the school since its beginnings, and has marveled at what it has become.
“We may not be the perfect school,” she says, “but we’re close.”