The state of the arts programs in Tullahoma City Schools

The state of the arts programs in Tullahoma City Schools has been a topic of conversation following the recent resignation of the high school’s choir director. Atticus Hensley, fine arts coordinator for the school district, said student participation in arts programs across the city is strong, including the theater program. Last fall, THS staged a production of “Clue: On Stage,” featuring a cast that included, front from left, Olivia Beam, Belle Miller and Abigale Eldrige. In back are Michael Gray, Niya Waller, Douglass Tilley, Keana Kobarde Jake Bennett, Tucker Johnson and Courtney Songer.

Music programs flourish

Despite the abrupt resignation of Choir Director Adam Womack at Tullahoma High School, fine arts education at Tullahoma City Schools is in great shape, according to district officials.

In his Facebook post announcing his decision to resign, Womack raised concerns about the state of the choral program in Tullahoma, though Fine Arts Coordinator Atticus Hensley says those concerns are “probably overstated.”

When asked about a “dip” in the number of choral students across the district, Hensley said there were actually more students currently enrolled in choir in the middle schools since THS Assistant Principal Greg English taught the class more than a decade ago.

In fact, Hensley added, both middle school chorus programs had recently attended a choir festival and performed well.

“The short answer there is things are great,” he said.

While he did recognize there had been some hardship with the necessary teaching positions in the last few years, there was really only one year where the number of choral students at East Middle School were “low,” but the newest hire by the district had contributed to a “rebound” in the numbers.

“I think if you go back and look at the position as it was filled last year, you saw the numbers at East rebound from not a drastic low, but a chin-scratching, worrying low,” he said. “This year there are at least as many people in choir as there are in band, if not more.”

Hensley attributed the perceived worry over the number of choral students at East Middle School to the rate of turnover in the position. According to Womack’s Facebook post, there had been six different choir directors at East in as many years, a number which Hensley confirmed.

That turnover, however, did not mean there weren’t “quality people” in those positions the entire time, Hensley added. He said one of his jobs as the fine arts coordinator for the district is to make sure the district has “as many strong candidates as possible.”

The turnover wasn’t necessarily due to the culture in Tullahoma, either, Hensley said.

“It’s just been a string of marriages, different jobs [and] people not wanting to commute,” he said.


Band program

When asked about the state of the band program, Hensley said it is still operating in the same successful fashion as it has for decades.

Hensley said it is “steadily growing,” as more and more students become interested in the band program in middle school and continue into high school.

“The band program continues to do what it’s done. I don’t see any slowing down,” he said.

The high school band is currently preparing to host the U.S. Navy Band this Sunday for a special concert. The Navy Band’s stop in Tullahoma is part of a national tour the group embarks on each year.

Ten students from the high school band will have the opportunity to perform with the Navy Band during the concert, according to school officials. That concert will take place 3 p.m. on Sunday. Doors open at 2:15 p.m. Tickets are free, but required for the event. Contact THS at 454-2620 for more information.


Theater arts

Hensley also heavily praised THS theater arts director Aaron Miller for all the work he is doing at the high school, virtually by himself.

“Aaron Miller – his little one-man show – I don’t see that the man ever sleeps, but I know he must sometimes, because he hasn’t fallen down dead. He continues to do a really, really good job for us.”

Miller oversees the theater department as well as the THS Improvateers, the school’s improvisational theater group.

The group is currently working on a spring play, “Nevermore,” as well as preparing for the annual Ultimate Oldies show. According to Miller, Ultimate Oldies will serve as a fundraiser for the Improvateers this year, something proposed to him by the showrunner.


Visual arts

Hensley also said the visual arts programs, both at the high school and the two middle schools, are flourishing.

While administrators at East Middle School had already expanded art access to students as much as possible, Hensley said West Middle School was still looking into how it could connect more students with visual art.

He and West Middle School administrators are currently looking into small “tweaks in the schedule” for students to have more “contact time” with art teacher Kathy McMillian in a way that doesn’t disrupt any other classes.

“It’s a complicated process,” he said. “You’ve got X number of students; you’ve got X number of class periods running across four quarters. Any time you can free up space in one quarter, you also create space in another.”

No matter how they tweak the schedule, however, Hensley said the overall structure will stay the same.

“From the outside looking in, you’d never know the difference,” he said.

As for the high school, he said the visual art program was “chugging along” as usual, though he was impressed with the newly-instated digital arts program.

“I’m excited about digital arts,” he said. “There’s no negative on that one that I can see at all.”

Hensley said the art students were creating in the digital arts classes was both a wonderful creative outlet as well as practical life experience for those who want to work in graphic design or related fields as adults.


Big changes

Probably the biggest and most positive impact Hensley has seen is the decision to hire on full-time art and music teachers for all four elementary schools.

The school board made the decision to add on four new art and music teachers for the elementary schools before the current school year, a move which Hensley admired profusely.

That decision has paid large dividends for the elementary arts programs, he said.

“Basically, we have doubled the amount of contact time with visual art and music at the elementary schools,” he said.

Having those full-time instructors in place was particularly helpful for the students, he said.

“If you look at how most school systems are structured … that’s where you get the most consistent time with the student,” Hensley said, “because at the elementary level they don’t make choices – they go to classes.”

By introducing students to art and music as young children, students can begin to make decisions about whether or not they’d like to continue art or music education as they go through the system, he said.

“Then when you get to the middle school level, you start making a few choices,” Hensley said. While students have a mostly set school day, they are able to decide if they’d like to take more music or more art in addition to their basic art and music classes.

“You’re still getting all of the kids, but at the same time you’ve got students that have decided to go full-time with this or that,” he said.

By the time the students reach high school, where they can fully design their own schedules, students can choose to focus more heavily on their art or music skills if that’s where their interest lies. Having that foundational exposure to art and music can help students decide on, or even discover, a passion, he said.

“That change at the elementary level to provide that much more contact time, I think, is just life changing,” Hensley added.


New choir director

As of now, the high school is still in the process of searching for an interim choir teacher to replace Womack, whose last day with the district is today (Friday, March 15).

After an interim teacher is selected, the district will then go on to search for a full-time replacement.

“Of course, right now we’re in the process of finding that new piece of the puzzle for the choral program,” Hensley said of the search.

Erin McCullough may be reached at