Dancer Nanya El Madyun Wilson says MPS' High School of the Arts taught him "the importance of experimentation and exploration."

This Milwaukee School is Churning Out Future Stars

This MPS high school churns out artistically gifted graduates at a very high rate.

To say Amy Pietz is a proud alum of Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts would be an understatement.

“[Going there] was the best decision of my life,” says the longtime actress and graduate of the school’s 1987 class. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.” Although Pietz – who has acted in television shows like “Two and a Half Men” and “Law & Order” and is currently cast in the CW’s “No Tomorrow” – credits much of her on-screen success to the school, it’s not just for the acting skills she picked up there. Instead, she says, the school’s sense of unity made her feel accepted and taught her the importance of diversity and teamwork. It also kept her out of trouble.

“It kept me from looking for thrills in drugs and alcohol because I was stimulated creatively,” she says. “I learned about inequality and discrimination. It made me a better person in so many ways.”

Class of ’08
Broadway actor
Kyle Taylor Parker

The school, which was converted from West Division High School in the early 1980s, has a simple format: Students – who must audition to get in – choose from majors like music, dance, theater, creative writing or visual art. Its more than 900 students spend at least two hours each day working on their arts curriculum, separate from their other coursework.

Milwaukee High School of the Arts is among a handful of similar public and private arts-focused high schools across the state, including The Renaissance School for the Arts in Appleton and Kettle Moraine School for Arts and Performance. For many, it provides direction.

Lili Kryzanek aka Lili K. Photo by Dakota Harper

“I was passionate about dance but it was looked at like an extracurricular activity,” says 2007 graduate and choreographer Jade Charon Robertson. “[When I came to the school], I was able to focus on it during the day and that really worked better for me.”

For Robertson, a dance teacher and mentor at a Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club as well as a graduate student at UCLA, it also provided the springboard for her current dance-film project about race and what the arts can add to the dialogue.

Photo by Cheryl Mann

Class of ’03
Dancer in Joffrey Ballet
Jacqueline Moscicke

Despite achievements in the arts, the school falls short on academics. In recent years, it has “met few expectations” or worse, “failed to meet expectations” in traditional learning areas, according to the state Department of Public Instruction’s annual assessments. To turn things around, teachers are now targeting English, math, literacy and writing for struggling students with “a lot of interventions and study sessions,” says principal Barry Applewhite. As added incentive, the school will begin offering the AP Capstone college credit program in fall. “We want our academic program to match our artistic one,” he says.

While most students won’t end up with arts careers, the school works “to create students who have an appreciation for the arts but also give them the tools so they can do whatever they would like after high school,” Applewhite says. Many use the school to propel them into other fields. “One of our recent graduates is an excellent trombonist – he used that skill to get into UW-Madison where he’s an engineering major,” he says.

In between high school and fame, over 60 percent of the students take at least some college classes and, he says, “A lot of our visual arts students go to MIAD. A large number of them go to Columbia College down in Chicago or UW-Madison.” Some students, he says, are “aggressively recruited” by historically black colleges. And some alumni, like Nanya El Madyun Wilson, return to the school to pay it forward. He choreographed a performance piece with the school’s students recently before moving to France for a full scholarship at the dance school La Manufacture.

Class of ’06
Kasia Wisniewski

Proud Pupils

➞ “It helps you think differently, communicate differently and it introduces you to people from all walks of life,” says jazz singer Lili Kryzanek, a 2009 graduate.

➞ “It helped me cope and handle the stress of everyday life,” says Ryan Butts, a 2009 grad who designs Stacy Adams footwear.

➞ “Before that school, I was just a drummer in my grandfather’s church,” says Shonn Hinton, who attended in the mid-90s and has played guitar for John Legend, Patti Labelle, Mary J. Blige and Lil Wayne. ◆

[Editor’s note: A number of readers have commented that the phrase ‘light on academics’ used to describe Milwaukee High School of the Arts was unfair or untrue.

While we appreciate the dialogue and meant no disrespect, the fact is that the school has repeatedly performed below average and “has ‘met few expectations’ or worse, ‘failed to meet expectations’ in traditional learning areas, according to the state Department of Public Instruction’s annual assessments,” as the article states. Further, principal Barry Applewhite acknowledged the school’s low achievement in the article and noted steps they’re taking to improve, which we included. The article also mentioned that the school will soon offer the AP Capstone college credit program as an additional step toward academic improvement and opportunity.

Readers also found fault with the DPI’s assessment tool, which has long been argued as insufficient in measuring student achievement. Whether or not that is the case isn’t our argument to decide. That assessment is, however, the only measurement used uniformly across the state to track student achievement.]

‘Launch Pad’ appears in the March 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 27, or buy a copy online.

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Based in his hometown of Madison, Steve is a freelance reporter and regular contributor to Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus and many other publications. During his undergraduate studies at UW-Milwaukee, he wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Shepherd Express. Now a graduate student at UW-Madison, he'll build on his 15 years of experience in print by focusing on multimedia reporting and data visualization.