A year of adventure at Northwest School of the Arts

As Year One of middle school ends for Jada Jones, Max Orroth, Sophie Teague and Yabi Gedewon, so closes a chapter of being a newbie in a competitive arts magnet school.

In Northwest School of the Arts’ musical theater program, they’ve sung, danced, acted, learned what it’s like to not always get the part, and, in between many, many practices, squeezed in several hours of homework.

Their choice to attend Northwest wasn’t taken lightly, and it was a family decision. Choosing to return next year – which all four will do – was also a family decision. Their parents, none of whom have previously sent children to a magnet school, had much to say about it, along with advice for parents who face the same decisions.

Choosing Northwest

Yabi’s parents found out about Northwest from his fifth grade teacher. Sophie’s and Jada’s heard about it from the girls, who saw Northwest students perform and wanted to do the same. Max’s parents heard about it from parents of a student he had performed with.

While all of the kids voiced strong opinions about attending, some parents had questions and concerns. Katrina Teague, Sophie’s mom, wanted to know how classes would work. And how did the school view academics?

Others wondered if their kids could handle the packed schedule. “It’s not an easy school,” said Gedewon Kassa, Yabi’s dad. “He can’t play a lot.”

Kate Orroth, Max’s mom, recalls visiting Northwest for the first time with Max and seeing a lot of potential concerns. Coming from Huntersville, she was surprised by the urban setting of the school when she first drove up. She also saw there were many more girls at the school than boys, and that big high-schoolers were walking around.

Max “didn’t notice any of that,” she said. “He was looking at dancers on the floor stretching before a class and saying, ‘Mom, that is so neat.’ All of the things I was noticing he was completely oblivious to.”

All four kids, their parents said, had a strong desire to go to the school. Kate and Mike Orroth have another son, in fifth grade, and they don’t necessarily picture him going to Northwest like his brother. He hasn’t been asking about Northwest much either.

“He plays guitar,” Kate said. “But he also does a lot of other things, whereas Max was always on me, asking ‘Are we going to go to Northwest?’”

‘A big step’

The first year wasn’t a cakewalk, parents said, and the key to success is a passion for the arts, time management and the drive to succeed both academically and in musical theater.

“It kind of feels like going to college but coming from the fifth grade,” Mike Orroth said. “It’s a big step.”

Samm and Raymont Jones, Jada’s parents, said their daughter has learned a lot of self-discipline this year. Sometimes she stays up till midnight working on homework or projects, they said. “She’ll get up before we even get up,” Raymont said. “It’s not only dancing, but it’s taking studying seriously.”

They don’t need to tell her to start her homework either, they said, and she takes initiative. “She’ll always be very proactive and emails teachers,” Samm said. Her father added: “She’s not afraid to ask for help.” If she didn’t have that initiative, they suspect it wouldn’t have worked.

Other parents spoke of how surprised they were at the length of the school day, with the addition of practices or rehearsals. Also surprising: Their children figured out when to stay up late, and when they had to get up – Yabi’s parents said sometimes at 4 a.m. – to get work done. Mike Orroth said Max’s sense of time management, and getting up early by himself, is a huge change from the previous school year.

While all of this work seems a lot for 11- and 12-year-olds, their parents say they’ve stuck with it because their kids have kept up their academics (which seems to be the common parental requirement for staying at the school) and, simply put, they’re happy there.

“He’s in the right place, that’s it,” said Senait Muluneh, Yabi’s mom. “Since he was born, he’s the kind of person who’s always singing. ... That’s the right place for him. He’s a stage person.”

The parents have watched their children thrive onstage, and offstage, create new friendships, show leadership and become more organized, they said. The kids have also gotten some doses of reality.

Raymont Jones has had to tell Jada it’s OK to make mistakes. “You’re going to fail sometimes. If you don’t fail, you’re never going to make it,” he said. Katrina Teague agrees and said this year has been beneficial in learning how to deal with disappointment. “You don’t get a trophy for just showing up,” she said.

Expectations for the future

Parents have a range of expectations from their children in Northwest’s musical theater program, says Corey Mitchell, who teaches high school musical theater there, and the parents of these four sixth-graders prove that.

Max’s parents call themselves realists. “I just want to get him to college,” Mike Orroth said. They said they’ve told Max that if he wants to go to Broadway, they’ll be supportive, but he’ll have to work harder now than he is already. “I feel certain this aspect of his life will always be a part of his life,” said his mom, Kate. But his dad added: “We’re not making the effort to truck him to different agencies.”

The Joneses expect Jada to make a career of dancing under the bright lights, because that’s what she loves and they think she has the drive to do so. “She’s not going anywhere else, so far. That’s her plan,” said Samm Jones: “Her target is New York City.”

The Teagues say they see Sophie in a Broadway setting because of her passion for musical theater, and that of her three career choices, emulating Jennifer Lawrence (but on Broadway) is at the top. As an animal-lover, she’s also pondered dolphin training, and third is photography and filmmaking, which Katrina Teague said she’d like to see her daughter explore in high school.

Yabi’s parents also suspect their son will make a living with something theater-related, because he loves it. But school always comes first, says his father. “The career is what he will start developing, but he needs his education no matter what.”

Success stories have happened, Northwest’s Mitchell said, but generally, just about 20 percent of Northwest graduates continue studying theater, or begin a theater career. “What I preach to these kids regularly is to make sure they’re learning everything they can and taking advantage of every opportunity they can, honing their craft,” he said. “Because the fact is anybody could make a living, but that doesn’t mean they could make a living as a star, because that’s as much a fleeting chance as it is anything else.”

Magnet school considerations

The parents had some tips, too, for parents considering magnets for their children. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has eight magnet options, ranging from International Baccalaureate to language immersion to STEM (that’s science, technology, engineering and math).

The Teagues said magnet parents need to be involved in their child’s education and keyed in to their various projects, and in their own case, performances. “School is not a baby sitter,” Stan Teague said.

The Orroths recommended going to the school while it’s in session before sending your child there, talking with the principal and teachers and attending open houses. And talk to your child about whether they’re excited about the school and whether they’re willing to put in the hard work and extra hours that may be required, they said.

You’ll also have to carefully consider your child’s interests, said Natasha Thompson, CMS director for magnet programs and school redesign. For example: “Northwest School of the Arts does not offer athletics, so if you have a child who may like to sing but really wants to play volleyball, you really have to weigh your options,” she said.

The parents said they’re pleased with how this first year at Northwest has gone, and they’re proud of all their kids have done and how they’ve grown.

“Part of life is taking risks, and being in a magnet school has paid off this year,” Raymont Jones said. “It’ll be great just seeing how Northwest plays out, and going from there.”