Destini Anderson never had seen so many white students until she started sixth grade at Charleston County School of the Arts.

By the numbers

The following student figures were pulled from the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years.

School Total enrollment Percent white Percent low-income

Academic Magnet 618 85 11

Buist Academy 457 79 14

School of the Arts 1,093 77 23

School District 47,163 45 64

Source: Charleston County School District, S.C. Department of Education

She was the only student from downtown James Simons Elementary to apply and be accepted to the county’s flagship arts magnet school.

Rate of acceptance

The following is a breakdown of the 2012-13 total number of fifth-graders who applied and were accepted to School of the Arts for its 160-student sixth-grade class from the eight high-poverty elementary schools where arts school students are volunteering.

Students also are volunteering at Zucker Middle to help eighth-graders, but school-by-school acceptance figures for freshmen weren’t provided.

School Applicants Accepted students

Corcoran 19 1

Frierson 1 0

Hursey 0 0

James Simons 0 0

Lambs 8 1

Minnie Hughes 0 0

Pinehurst 9 1

Sanders-Clyde 9 1

Top 3 elementary school with most rising sixth-graders accepted to School of the Arts

Ashley River Creative Arts 31

Pinckney Elementary 14

Jennie Moore 12

Source: School of the Arts

“I didn’t know anything about School of the Arts,” said Anderson, now a senior majoring in theater. “I’d never heard of it.”

Application deadline

The deadline to apply to any Charleston County magnet school is Nov. 1, and all schools’ applications are available online. For more information, go to:

She found out about the grades 6-12 arts school from her fifth-grade English teacher, who noticed Anderson’s outgoing personality and encouraged her to apply.

Anderson’s unfamiliarity with School of the Arts isn’t unusual in some pockets of the district, particularly among high-poverty elementary schools enrolling mostly minority students.

That lack of information among under-served students has implications for the arts school’s racial and socioeconomic diversity. Its demographics don’t reflect the district’s overall student makeup, and that’s a concern for district and school leaders.

Diversity is one of the Charleston County School District’s four core values, and district leaders say schools are stronger when they reflect the real world. But three of the arguably best magnet schools in the county — Academic Magnet High, Buist Academy and School of the Arts — are much more white and wealthier than the district average.

School of the Arts launched this fall a new, innovative effort to address the problem, and about 70 of its high school students have volunteered to work with more than 500 mostly fifth-graders in eight low-income elementary schools. They also are helping eighth-graders at one middle school.

The arts school students will visit those nine schools at least four times this year to teach their art and help younger students with the school’s application and audition process.

“This is a good start,” Anderson said.

Fiercely competitive

During the last 10 to 15 years, the School of the Arts has seen a decline in its diversity and a more dramatic departure from the county school district’s demographics.

This school year, 77 percent of the arts school’s students are white, and 13 percent are black. That’s a far cry from the rest of the school district — 45 percent of the county’s public school students are white and 43 percent are black.

Its socioeconomic diversity is lacking too. Twenty-three percent of the arts school students were considered high-poverty during the 2012-13 school year, which is far less than the district average of 64 percent.

Principal Shannon Cook doesn’t think the school’s diversity statistics need to exactly mirror those of the entire county, but she would like to see more alignment between the numbers.

“Talent does not run along income and racial lines,” she said. “It crosses all of those, so we want to make sure that we are providing that access.”

The school’s admissions process is fiercely competitive, and that has raised the level of expectations for the art skill, potential and passion students must demonstrate during auditions. Judges evaluated more than 900 auditions last year for 160 slots in the school’s sixth-grade class.

That means students must come better prepared than ever before for the audition process, Cook said. And that can be more difficult for students who never have had access to an arts lesson outside of school.

To ensure the application process is as fair as possible, the school made some changes last year. Some of those included eliminating the requirement to write a short essay, and requiring students to show only that they were passing rather than an honor roll student.

The school also plans to add a costume design major for its high school, and that will add seats and be open to students who may or may not have had private instruction. More information soon will be available for interested students.

Those were beginning steps, and the outreach program is the latest effort to be more inclusive.

A shared problem

The lack of student diversity at School of the Arts is magnified at the district’s two other special-admission magnet schools: Buist Academy and Academic Magnet High. Both have more white and more affluent students than School of the Arts.

“I am very aware of it, and I am also very concerned about it,” said Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley of all three magnet schools. “It is my belief that all of our students should have access to schools, and it’s our responsibility to make parents more aware of the process to get in.”

That’s part of the impetus behind the district’s annual choice fair, which features all the school options from which parents can choose, as well as its decision to have a unified application deadline for its magnet schools.

McGinley doesn’t think quotas are the answer, but she does think that school and district leaders need to actively work to increase diversity.

Academic Magnet and School of the Arts have leadership teams working to address this issue, and officials are drafting a policy proposal that would change the admissions process at Academic Magnet, she said.

At School of the Arts, McGinley pointed to its competitive audition process, and she said elementary students’ art teachers’ support is an important factor. She plans to have elementary art teachers work more with School of the Arts so they understand the admissions process and better prepare students for it.

And once students enroll, she said the school must have an open, supportive climate that celebrates diversity.

“We do believe diversity is a strength and an asset, and we want to see all ethnicities represented in our schools,” she said. “We know that’s the world kids are going to live in.”

She applauded the work being done by School of the Arts to inform younger students of their options.

“This program with seniors is really powerful and one of the most visible things that has happened,” she said. “I’m excited about it because children listen to other children more than they would ever listen to me or a guidance counselor.”

Outreach project

The idea for connecting School of the Arts students with low-income elementary schools grew out of Cook’s desire to communicate the school’s offerings, as well as a student-volunteer-run spring break arts camp.

Cook wanted to do more than just send out applications to prospective students; she wanted School of the Arts students to be the school’s ambassadors.

At the same time, teacher Michelle Gorritti was looking at ways to make the school’s spring break arts camp more sustainable. School of the Arts students have volunteered to teach their arts to nearby elementary school students during their spring break for the past few years.

Cook decided that Gorritti would head the new outreach project, and she dedicated time in Gorritti’s schedule to coordinate it.

They invited the district’s high-poverty schools, which often have low numbers of applicants and acceptance rates, to participate, one middle school and eight elementary school principals said they wanted to be a part of this project.

Principal Reggie Bright at A.C. Corcoran Elementary was among those who said “yes,” and all of his 83 fifth-graders are involved in the program this year. Many of his students aren’t able to participate in arts activities outside school, he said.

“It’s giving that awareness to kids,” he said.

He invited School of the Arts students to the school during students’ special area period, which is either physical education, music, art, library or computer. His students take each of those classes once per week.

Making it happen

On Monday, Anderson crouched down low so she was eye-level with a Corcoran Elementary fifth-grader.

“How’s your day going?” she asked. The fifth-grader responded by smiling.

“You already broke!” Anderson told her.

This theater game is the same one Anderson played when she started sixth grade, and the goal is to learn about not breaking character by smiling or laughing.

It represents a tiny piece of what she has learned during the past five years, but she knows it’s the kind of lesson students need if they’re going to audition.

“They need to be able to focus,” she said.

Anderson was one of eight School of the Arts students who fanned out across the North Charleston building, and they taught lessons in visual arts, piano/band, dance and theater.

In the dance group, senior Callie Mathias explained the arts school’s application and what judges would be looking for in auditions. She demonstrated how their feet and arms should look while in three of ballet’s five basic positions, and she showed them proper techniques for jumping.

“Keep your legs straight and point your toes,” she told one student.

Mathias’ experience prior to being accepted to School of the Arts was far different than Anderson’s. Anderson didn’t have any theater training, and she didn’t know anyone else who was applying; Mathias attended Sullivan’s Island Elementary, and she said “everybody” in school knew about School of the Arts. She had been taking dance lessons outside of school since she was in first grade.

Mathias said most of her dance group at Corcoran Elementary never had heard of School of the Arts and lacked formal training. She said that could make the audition process more difficult because judges expect a certain level of experience, and some students didn’t know what a ballet shoe was.

She said she’d like to work with students in lower grades, maybe third or fourth, so that they could have more training.

“You can’t become a dancer overnight,” she said.

Going forward

Students seem to have varying levels of interest in the lessons being offered by School of the Arts students.

Fifth-grader Jaedyn Jones was in the theater group. She said she didn’t know much about School of the Arts before this, but she’s still not interested in applying.

Joshua Vinson was in the dance group, and he said he wanted to apply to School of the Arts.

“You get to do all kinds of things,” he said. “You get to sing and dance, and I can learn dance moves.”

Anderson can’t imagine the person she would be if it hadn’t been for School of the Arts. She initially worried she wouldn’t get along with some of her classmates, but that went away and her love for the school grew.

The School of the Arts community made her feel more willing to try new things, and she felt comfortable being a minority in a majority-white school, she said.

“I think it made me more open to new people,” she said.

Cook said she hopes to see more students apply and be accepted from across the district, particularly from the nine schools they have targeted. She also wants her students to help elementary kids understand that “art is not limited to the walls of School of the Arts,” so if they’re not accepted, they still can find other avenues in their community to do art.

The nine schools will be surveyed at the end of this year, and Cook plans to review the feedback and decide how to proceed next year.

“We’re not going to fix this in one year, but we can do something,” she said.