Leader of the band: Scott Rush wants more arts education
From the Charleston Post and Courier
Article by Adam Parker, photos by Grace Beahm
For Scott Rush, nothing could be finer than to stand before a school band and make music. He has tried to make it a lifelong habit, though his skills as an educator have propelled him up the chain of command and away from the band room.
Today, Rush is director of fine and performing arts for Dorchester District 2, a generally high-performing public school system that serves the lower half of Dorchester County, especially the Summerville area.
His years in education have taught him that a school curriculum infused with the arts improves learning,retention, test scores, behavior and general performance. The arts are considered vital if educators are to teach “the whole person,” he said.
As the Charleston County School District grapples with an $18 million budget shortfall, representing about 4 percent of its $430 million annual operating budget, it’s making cuts that impact arts education.
Dorchester District 2, a smaller district with a $187 million operating budget, instead has strengthened its commitment to arts education and empowered Rush to encourage collaboration and improve programming.
In 2007, a federal arts grant for Alston Middle School allowed district officials to add fine arts programs that resulted in improved attendance, discipline and math and literacy scores.
A recent federal grant for River Oaks Middle School and Eagle Nest Elementary School enabled the district to add more arts technology, an arts-dedicated technology associate and a drama teacher, introducing theater as a new core area of study at the two schools.
“We hope that this infusion of more arts education will show some of the same successes,” Rush said.
More than 70 percent of the district’s students participate in a fine arts class. More than 450 students enrolled in two fine arts summer enrichment programs.
The value of the arts to school learning became clear to Rush when he was a young student in Camden, where he grew up. His father was minister of music at church; his siblings played guitar and sang. At 4, Rush learned the ukulele. And music was a big part of the school day.
At Camden Middle School, dynamic choral and band teachers offered Rush a glimpse of his own future.
“By eighth grade I knew I wanted to play French horn,” he recalled. In high school, he realized he wanted to be a band director.
He majored in music at the University of South Carolina, attended the Brevard Music Center as a student and counselor in the summers, played second horn in the South Carolina Philharmonic and joined the 1986 Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.
It was good preparation for the New England Conservatory of Music, where Rush earned his master’s degree. He was in Boston for nearly four years, studying and freelancing. In 1990, he moved to Atlanta, performed with several ensembles and taught at nearby Kennesaw State University.
The performing life was fast becoming routine and unfulfilling, Rush said. He’d warm up, rehearse, perform; warm up, rehearse, perform. It wasn’t enough.
“A friend asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ Well, I’ve always wanted to be a band director.”
Dream come true
Rush, then in his late 20s, moved back to South Carolina and took a job at Newberry Middle School. He earned less money, but he was finally doing what he loved the most. He was there seven years. Then, in 1999, he applied for an open position at Wando High School.
“I couldn’t turn that down,” Rush said. Teaching band at Wando was a dream come true. He flourished there for 15 years. “They were fantastic years. Everything about that job I loved.”
Wando had 108 band students when Rush first arrived and 282 when he left. All the while, Rush racked up the state and national awards.
“Every child has the ability to fall in love with an art form,” he said. “If you are going to teach the whole child, Mozart and Michelangelo are just as important as Einstein and Shakespeare,” he said.
He’s proud that 44 of his former students have pursued careers as professional musicians.
Support from above
Rush said Dorchester District 2 Superintendent Joe Pye provides invaluable support. And that commitment trickles down.
“Art is intrinsic for the kids,” said Glenn Huggins, assistant superintendent over curriculum and instruction.
For example, in a social studies class recently, Huggins noticed the teacher was discussing the Egyptian pyramids with students. Down the hall in art class, students also were working on pyramids and talking about ancient Egyptian history. That was not by chance. It was a result of the kind of coordination the district encourages and Rush helps achieve.
In 2003, another friend suggested that Rush write a book about teaching band. He thought about it for a second, then got to work. “Habits of a Successful Band Director” was a surprise hit, and it led to the writing of six more method books in the “Habits” series, some co-authored by Jeff Scott and Emily Wilkinson or Christopher Selby.
Selby directs the Charleston County School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra. He said Rush insists on maintaining high standards.
“I saw that on the marching band field at Wando, and I see it in Dorchester District 2,” Selby said. “He does work very hard to be the best and to have the best and to create the best.”
He also has a clear vision for the direction music education has to go, Selby said. It must go is toward a more robust curriculum that includes the arts: STEAM, not STEM: science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
“Any education that focuses on just one half of the brain is insufficient,” Selby said. “STEM was missing a limb. In order for education philosophy to be complete, it includes the arts.”
Rush is a key partner for area arts organizations such as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Gaillard Center and Engaging Creative Minds, which collaborate with educators to enhance school districts’ offerings.
“We have found that it’s a homerun,” Rush said. “You’d think everybody would embrace arts-infused education. But equally important is art for art’s sake.”
What happens to a young listener when she hears Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings or views Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee”? How do they resonate in her imagination? How might they improve her quality of life?
For some students, the arts are more than a passing interest, hobby or method for enhancing academic performance; the arts provide a means of expression, a license to be creative, Rush said.
“The instruction we provide (students) should be strong enough, substantial enough … to enable them to pursue a career,” he said. “(Educators) can’t pick and choose what’s important and not so important to any individual student.”
More than 25,000 students at three high schools, six middle schools, 15 elementary schools and one alternative school benefit from this approach.