Innovations in Education: Successful Magnet High Schools
September 2008
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Booker T. Washington High School for The Performing And Visual Arts


Selected Characteristics of Magnet School and Host Districta
Magnet School: Booker T. Washington High School Host District: Dallas Independent School District
Year Established as Magnet 1976 Mid-size City Urban, Large
Theme Performing and visual arts Size 384 square miles
Grades 9-12 MSAPb Funded Received two or three cycles of funding in the late 1980s and early-mid 1990s
Enrollment 696 students Enrollment 9,018 magnet enrolled students/159,752 total student enrollment
Student Ethnicity 26% Hispanic
42% White
3% Asian American
1% Native American
Student Ethnicity
(grades K-12)
64% Hispanic
29% African-American
5% White
<1% Asian American
Special Education 3% Special Educationc 10%
Free or Reduced-price Lunch 27% Free or Reduced-price Lunchc 83.9%
English Language Learners <1% English Language Learnersc 31.24.86%

a Source: Texas Education Agency, 2006–07 Campus Performance, Academic Excellence Indicator System,

b U.S. Department of Education's Magnet Schools Assistance program

c For grades 9–12

A girl perfecting her folklorico movements, a group of students rehearsing a mime performance, a boy practicing the cello—these are but a few snippets of daily life for young artists at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA). Students playing instruments, rehearsing, or displaying paintings are not unusual sights at most high schools. But what sets BTWHSPVA apart is the markedly high caliber of its students' accomplishments in both arts and academics.

Distinguished alumni—including Norah Jones, Erykah Badu, and Roy Hargrove—collectively have won 22 Grammy awards. High-quality, professional-caliber works of art—all created by students—line the hallways and fill displays throughout the school. A gallery showcases visual arts created by the school's seniors.

Serving 705 ninth- through 12th-grade students in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), BTWHSPVA is the school of choice for students with special talents and the commitment to develop their potential. BTWHSPVA's mission is to provide intensive training in both arts and academics. The school's track record in both areas has earned it a reputation as one of the premier arts high schools in the country.

BTWHSPVA began in a facility built in 1922 to house the first African-American high school in Dallas. In 1955, that school had expanded and become a vocational and technical school. Then, in 1976, when the Texas Supreme Court ordered the district to desegregate its schools, DISD created a magnet program and established BTWHSPVA as an "arts magnet" to help attract a more diverse student population. In 2003, the court lifted the order, finding that DISD had successfully integrated its schools.

Mission and Curriculum

BTWHSPVA is a school for the arts—both performing and visual. The school's program is divided into four arts clusters, and each prospective student applies to one: Dance, Music, Theatre, or Visual Arts. Each cluster offers a set of classes that include training in the performance, technical, production, and theoretical aspects of the cluster's particular art form. In addition, students take academic courses to meet Texas graduation requirements. As one parent explains, "This is really two parallel high schools—a conservatory running parallel with an academic structure."

BTWHSPVA's rigorous academic offerings include 19 Advanced Placement (AP) courses—a large number for such a small student population. The College Board commended BTWHSPVA for its rigorous academic curriculum and recognized BTWHSPVA as having the strongest AP Music Theory course in the nation. The commitment to academics is also evident in BTWHSPVA's no-pass-no-play rule—students must be in good academic standing in their classes in order to be allowed to participate in any of the school's art performances.

Teachers spend a lot of effort and time ensuring that their academic curriculum covers required standards and content and that classes harness the creativity of BTWHSPVA's students. Master teachers, like Sidney Poitier, the late Gregory Hines, and Marvin Hamlisch, have come to talk to students about being a professional artist, earning an adequate living, auditioning for jobs, and finding a unique voice. Artists within the community often visit to help prepare students for interviews. Professional artists show students how to interact with adults, put together a portfolio, and converse through a mock interview. Students frequently attend professional arts performances and have opportunities to go backstage to see what happens behind the scenes.

Ensuring Student Success

Admission to the school is highly competitive. There are, on average, 500 applicants for 190 open spots for incoming freshmen. The district requires students to have a minimum level of academic achievement to be eligible for magnet schools, but BTWHSPVA considers another factor—all prospective students must audition or submit a portfolio of their artwork. If an applicant's audition or portfolio is strong enough, the BTWHSPVA selection committee can choose to waive the district's academic requirements.

Because of this admissions process, the school brings in many students who need help academically, so the school and community provide a variety of supports. The staff have created a remedial Reading Improvement class for incoming freshmen. Teachers offer tutoring before and after school each day. Some teachers offer tutorials on Sundays to accommodate students who have practices and rehearsals during the week. Each cluster also has a coordinator who personally follows up with any student whom teachers identify as being in danger of failing a class.

Throughout the school, there is an emphasis on college preparation. In a college preparatory course called "Portfolio," working artists talk about life as an artist, giving students a realistic view of art as a profession. All BTWHSPVA students create a portfolio for themselves, and every year the school participates in National Portfolio Day, when representatives of visual arts colleges and art institutes travel to high schools across the country and seniors show their portfolios.

The school also hosts a "Senior Showcase" for college representatives. During this multiday event, students from each cluster perform and present their best work. Prior to the showcase, students have to take headshots, create resumes, and sometimes film their work and create a DVD. Each cluster then creates a booklet, complete with resumes, headshots, and a brief background about that particular arts cluster, which is given to each college representative. The Julliard School and the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater program are just a few of the prestigious post-secondary institutions that attend.

With the commitment to arts and academics, the school day and week are much longer for students at BTWHSPVA compared to those at traditional public schools. The long hours and small student population foster close working relationships between adults and students. The extended school community also supports students. Adult mentors meet weekly with juniors and seniors who need extra guidance to prepare them for applying to colleges. The Advisory Board stages mock interviews for students at the junior grade level. Board members help them navigate their way through practice interviews and then give feedback to cluster coordinators, who use that information to better prepare students and to improve upon targeted areas.

Building School Capacity

BTWHSPVA's Advisory Board plays a large role in the school's success. Designated a 501-(c)(3) nonprofit, the board is comprised mainly of volunteers, including the school principal, plus two paid positions, including an executive director. Most of its 45 members are representatives of local arts organizations. It has raised and distributed funds for teachers to undertake collaborative projects. An endowment fund started in 1988 currently holds $1.3 million, earmarked solely for supporting students. It helps students participate in extracurricular and summer arts programs and provides graduation caps and gowns for seniors who cannot afford these items.

The Advisory Board was instrumental in a recent capital campaign to raise $55 million to build a new facility. A pivotal factor in the campaign's success turned out to be the 2003 Grammy show, when Norah Jones, a BTWHSPVA alumnus, won eight awards, drawing local attention to the school. Soon afterward, the board secured a $500,000 donation, which in turn garnered more trust from the local community. When asked what was the key to securing large donations, the assistant campaign director points out that "all of the big donors have visited the school." The school clearly sells itself.

DISD, a large urban district that oversees 28 magnet schools, supported BTWHSPVA's capital campaign. It passed a $1 billion bond that was dedicated to capital improvements throughout the district, and DISD has given $23 million to BTWHSPVA's campaign. The campaign is the district's first public-private partnership.

All of BTWHSPVA's teachers—whether focused on academics or arts—must have an arts background to join the staff. As a result, students are able to go to any teacher in the building to be mentored and to learn from professional artists. Parents also play a large role in BTWHSPVA's success through their membership in the Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA). Each arts cluster has a parent guild, which one teacher describes as being "like an individual PTA." One of them, the Theatre Guild, has 100 members and has raised money for costumes, to cover the costs of students' headshots, and for students to attend performances outside of school.

Achievement and Outcomes

BTWHSPVA is "more of a community than just a school," says one parent, noting that the sense of community is due mainly to the long hours that both staff and students keep. The school's assistant principal says he felt he "died and went to heaven" when he joined the BTWHSPVA staff because students are so cooperative and their interactions with adults are so respectful and positive.

Over 90 percent of BTWHSPVA graduates attend postsecondary institutions, garnering scholarships in excess of $5 million, while the other graduates generally enter an arts profession immediately or join the military. The school's awards are numerous. The National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts named BTWHSPVA as one of the "Top 5 Arts High Schools" in the country. It was the first school in the district to receive a National Blue Ribbon Award for Exemplary Education from the U.S. Department of Education. BTWHSPVA also shares the honor, with one other school, of producing more Presidential Scholars in the arts (the Presidental Scholars Program is a national recognition program administered by the U.S. Department of Education for excellence in academics and the arts) than any other school in the southwestern United States.

Table 9 compares the percentages of 10th- and 11th-grade students scoring proficient and above on 2007 TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) English language arts and mathematics assessments with district and state achievement rates. The comparison indicates that BTWHSPVA percentages exceeded those of the district and state.

Table 9. Percentages of 10th- and 11th-Grade Students Who Scored Proficient And Above on 2007 State Assessments at Booker T. Washington High School For the Performing and Visual Arts as Compared to the District and the State

Grade and Subject BTWHSPVA Dallas Independent
School District
State of Texas
Grade 10 English Language Arts 99% 77% 85%
Grade 10 Mathematics 87% 52% 65%
Grade 11 English Language Arts 98% 86% 91%
Grade 11 Mathematics 96% 73% 81%

Source: Texas Education Agency, 2006–07 Campus Performance, Academic Excellence Indicator System,

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Last Modified: 11/19/2009