American Fork • Derryl Yeager hears a chronic complaint from parents whose kids take dance classes: After a full day at school, tired students devote several more hours in the evening to developing their talent.
His conversations with parents led the artistic director and founder of Utah's Odyssey Dance Theatre to team up with several other artists to launch one of Utah's eight new charter schools Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts.
"I've seen so many kids get burned out along the way," Yeager said. "I had wanted to start a performing arts high school for many years, but I didn't want to deal with the academic stuff. I knew what to do with the kids performing arts-wise, but it seemed too overwhelming to me [to start a school]."
He changed his mind after learning about Lincoln Interactive, an accredited online curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade. By offering core classes such as math, science, language arts and social studies online, Yeager realized he'd be free to develop a curriculum of electives for dance, drama and music.
Pioneer High School will contract with Pennsylvania-based Lincoln Interactive to handle core classes. The company's teacher facilitators will evaluate student assignments and answer questions through email and discussion boards. Facilitators teach courses via video and webcasts.
While Pioneer won't be the first charter school in Utah devoted to performing arts, many of its leaders are getting involved in public education for the first time after years of operating their own private dance, drama and music businesses.
Yeager, a former principal dancer at Ballet West, founded Odyssey Dance company in 1993. He'll join Caleb Chapman, owner of CCM in Orem and a saxophonist who directs more than 150 of Utah's young musicians in nine elite ensembles, including the award-winning Crescent Super Band; Mindy Smoot Robbins, owner and artistic director of On Broadway Academy in Orem; Utah actress and director Kymberly Mellon; and musician Sam Payne as directors of the school.
Yeager said he won't be involved in directly managing the new school's finances. In 2008, Yeager admitted he owed more than $700,000 in back taxes to the IRS because he had failed to pay Odyssey's taxes during the company's early years. At the time, he said if he had paid the taxes he wouldn't have been able to pay his employees and Odyssey would have ceased to exist. He worked out a settlement with the IRS and said the company is in better financial shape now than in its infancy.
Pioneer will be managed by a board of directors composed of seven members. Yeager is vice chairman, and Darren Hensley, a partner at an accounting firm, will serve as chair.
Job-ready artists? • Currently, 95 charter schools are authorized to operate in Utah, including six that will not open until the 2013-14 school year, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
Most charter schools are authorized by the Utah State Charter School Board, but several are approved by school districts as allowed by state law. All charter schools are publicly funded.
The founders of Pioneer High School envision a place where students in grades nine through 12 can choose from four programs actor training, dance, music or theater which will help develop their talent before graduation. Yeager said he wants his students to be job-ready, unlike many performing artists he said he has met while holding auditions for his dance company in metropolitan areas.
"When I go to New York and Los Angeles to audition for my dance company, there are so many people who come to these things who are unprepared. They probably starred in their musical in high school and thought they were all that. They go to New York and they're waiting tables and they can't afford to take classes and they are going into auditions unprepared for the work they are auditioning for," he said.
"New York is not a mystical place. It's a place where everyone from Poughkeepsie has gone hoping to be in a Broadway musical, but 95 percent of them are unaware of what it takes. We're trying to set up a school so they will be better prepared, so students will have the arts training and background to make them employable."
The curriculum will be designed to help students become "triple threats" artists who have received training to sing, act and dance. Too often, Yeager said, a talented vocalist will show up at a musical audition without any training in dance, or a dancer will have never taken singing lessons. The charter school will be a vocational training program to help students work toward becoming well-rounded artists, he said.
But school leaders know all their graduates won't be able to support themselves with performing arts careers. That's why the school's virtual component of core courses is just as critical, said Jon Funes, the school's marketing manager and a parent member of its board of directors.
"We feel it's important they have a strong educational background whether they end up in performing arts or not," said Funes. He said students who haven't yet studied performing arts in classes outside of school are also welcome.
"Whether they're a beginner or whether Juilliard is already waiting for them, we've got a place for them. If they're a low-income kid who hasn't had the opportunity to develop their talents, we have this program."
The school day will begin at 7 a.m., and performing arts classes will be offered on-site until nearly 6:30 p.m. Students, who attend school year-round, will rotate between 85-minute class periods held at studio spaces in American Fork, Highland and Lehi. Because core classes are completed online, students can do that coursework at home or between performing arts classes.
Robbins said the school's structure will allow teachers to group students by ability rather than age.
"If there is a freshman who is excelling and successful, we can put them in a level-four class. If there is a senior that has never had dance a day in their life, they might be in Ballet One," she said.
So far, nearly 200 students have signed up for the inaugural year. The school's charter allows for an enrollment of 1,000 students, but organizers would like to start with half that number.
Yeager and his colleagues say they're excited for what their new school will bring to Utah's performing arts scene.
Chapman said Utah's presence on such TV shows as "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" is proof the state is home to a wealth of performing arts talent.
"There is a high level of interest in the performing arts here," Chapman said.
Added Yeager: "We're going to create a school that will teach them everything we wish we would have had at this age."
Charters approved to open 2012-13
Where • Alpine School District, American Fork
Grades • K-8
Students • 540
Where • Granite School District, West Valley City
Grades • K-9
Students • 750
HighMark Charter School
Where • Davis School District, South Weber
Grades • K-9
Students • 695
Website • http://www.hmcharterschool.org
Pacific Heritage Academy
Where • Salt Lake City School District
Grades • K-8
Students • 450
Website • http://www.phlearning.org
Promontory School of Expeditionary Learning (formerly North Peak Academy)
Where • Box Elder School District, Perry
Grades • K-9
Students • 500
Website • http://www.promontoryschool.org
Where • Washington School District, Hurricane
Grades • K-7
Students • 450
Website • http://www.valleyacademycharter.com
Where • Granite School District, Kearns
Grades • K-9
Students • 500
Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts
Where • Alpine School District, American Fork/Lehi
Grades • 9-12
Students • 1,000
Website • http://www.pioneercharterschool.org
Source • Utah State Office of Education For more information: http://www.pioneercharterschool.org