Self portrait photograph by AHS Arts and Letters Pathway student Karin Turner Credit: Credit: Karin Turner via Diane DiGiacomo

Next year, rising junior Kieran Rundle will add a ninth course to her school day, but she won’t be spending it in a classroom. Instead, she will intern at the local nonprofit WriterHouse, helping to organize a weekly writing group for teenagers.

Rundle is one of 82 freshmen and sophomores who last year enrolled in the Arts & Letters Pathway, a pilot program at Albemarle High School that offers arts students the opportunity to focus their academic career on a particular area of interest.

Now in its second year, students say the most anticipated component of the pathway is the emphasis on arts education outside the classroom.

“The community learning requirement lets you truly dive in,” Rundle said. “You get to experience a sliver of what it would look like to follow your ideal profession.”

Students in the pathway focus on one of several tracks that include creative writing; media and publications; music; theater; and visual arts. Specific areas of study include ceramics, photography, band, orchestra, choral, piano, creative writing, journalism, yearbook, broadcast and filmmaking.

Students enrolled in the pathway are expected to complete 10 hours of job shadowing with a professional during their sophomore year. It is hoped that this experience will help students prepare for a junior year requirement in which they complete an internship or mentorship with a community organization.

“So far we’ve just seen our peers’ work in school,” said rising junior Maggie Browning. “This is meant to get us off our feet and learn outside of school. I’m really excited to meet artists already out in the field and see people successful in their dream career.”

For sophomores, however, establishing community contacts has not been easy, and many are completing the work-shadow experience over the summer after being unable to establish a connection during the school year.

To facilitate community outreach, administrators have aligned the job shadow and internship requirements with the AHS department of Career and Technical Education, which already has an established work-based learning program.

Despite the challenges, students remain enthusiastic about the attention the school is granting to the fine arts department.

“Oftentimes, high schools become very sports dependent, or very oriented toward math and science,” said Rundle. “Fine arts can get a bit lost in the scheme of things, but there are so many amazing kids at AHS who participate in them. The pathway helps them find their niche.”

Rundle, who already completed her job shadowing requirement with WriterHouse, said the experience is important for recognizing the realities of having an artistic career.

“It can be more difficult than you’d think,” she said. “And that reality could deter kids, or it could really motivate them.”

Rundle also said her experience with WriterHouse, in which she helped with administrative and managerial tasks, allowed her to get an idea of the variety of career options involved in the arts industry.

“It was neat to see all the different types of people that come together to make the place run,” she said. “I knew about the writing part, but seeing the things from the management aspect was really interesting. It showed me all the different ways to get involved with the writing community.”

Western Albemarle High School will launch its own version of the Arts & Letters Pathway in the upcoming school year, and administrators at Albemarle said that Monticello High is not far behind.

“I really think we hit on something here,” said Jay Thomas, principal of AHS. “The experiences our kids are getting inside the classrooms are second to none. Now we are also getting them out in the community to see what kinds of life paths are out there.”

Jennifer Morris, director of the program, agreed.

“We have an amazingly strong arts program all the way around,” she said. “[The pathway] is part of our effort to offer our students the strongest learning experiences.”