First-graders at the Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts make sense of symmetry through dance movements.

Other students study fractions through music, learning how different notes fit in a measure.

Earlier this year, fifth-graders demonstrated their knowledge of World War II by performing an original musical.

The public elementary school's efforts to integrate art into academic subjects earned it national recognition and $2,000 this year, the Beaufort County School District announced Friday.

The school is one of five recipients of the National Schools of Distinction in Arts Education Award. Presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, it honors schools that have made the arts an essential part of education.

The other recipients for the 2009-10 academic year are in Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland.

The School for Creative Arts has been recognized by the program on the state level, but had never won the national award. No Beaufort County school has won since the program began in 1999.

"It is like winning an Oscar and Grammy in the same day," principal Gretchen Keefner said.

The school teaches dance, theater, music and visual arts as separate classes and integrates the arts into traditional academic subjects. It has had an arts-focused curriculum since 2004.

"It's not about the arts happening in art classes and the core content -- reading, math, science and social studies -- happening in the classrooms," Keefner said. "There's a commitment to understanding each other's disciplines."

Keefner said the staff's commitment to that philosophy, as well as collaboration with community arts organizations, helped the school succeed.

She said test scores on state-mandated tests have improved since the school adopted an arts focus.

Teachers say the arts engage students and create memorable lessons to help them better retain information.

Teacher Cora Lugo remembers sitting with her first-grade class last year during the fifth-grade musical about World War II.

"My kids were on the edge of their seats the whole time, and first-graders really don't have a strong understanding of that time period," she said. "I had a million questions when we got back to the classroom."

Keefner said she loves seeing tangible evidence of hard work by students and teachers when watching their annual performances.

Last spring, a group of students performed an original work at Charleston's Piccolo Spoleto festival that explored the beginnings of jazz. They performed at the historic Sottile Theatre, which hosted the South Carolina premiere of "Gone With the Wind."