In 1979, Rocky Hanna was a freshman at Leon High School and he was struggling to find where he fit in. “I was somewhat of a social outcast when I was a ninth-grader,” he recalled.
“I was a kid with dark hair and dark skin, and people weren’t quite as accepting of people who looked like me back in the late ’70s.” Seeking a safe place for social interaction and self-discovery, Hanna enrolled in the men’s choir, directed by local music education legend Ray Kickliter.
“I was not a very talented musician or singer, but it was a wonderful way to express myself and to get in with a group. That chorus gave me an opportunity to meet other students and develop relationships.”
Participation in the arts allows many students to find acceptance.
Great arts educators foster a culture of empathy and compassion in their classrooms, and Kickliter was no exception.
“Mr. Kickliter was amazing, he was a wonderful man, a mentor, and years later we became dear friends.”
During their schooling, every one of the district’s 33,000 students will participate in the arts. At any given time, 80 percent of them are enrolled in at least one and often multiple visual, performing or literary arts classes. Students seeking in-depth experiences can choose from an array of honors-weighted options or advanced placement, dual enrollment and college credit courses, which prepare them for higher learning or a career in the arts.
There are currently more than 250 arts educators in the school district, and all of them affect the trajectory of their students’ personal, social, cognitive and creative development.
Hanna experienced this firsthand, not only from his own involvement in the arts but also as a school administrator. “When I took over as principal at Leon, I realized how important arts education and those programs are to so many of our kids. We committed lots of resources to those programs because they were so important.”
During his tenure, Hanna expanded Leon’s arts curriculum and hired additional faculty members to meet the demand. In 2009, his efforts were recognized with the Administrator of the Year Award, presented by the Florida State Thespians, a statewide theater education organization. “Those arts programs grew near and dear to my heart, as did those kids,” Hanna said. “I was blown away by the talent. I would have to pinch myself looking at some of their art or going to some of their performances, just to remind myself that these are teenagers.”
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