JANESVILLE—Sullivan Saliby is a little bit jealous. Not angry jealous ... just jealous jealous.
After spending four years in the prestigious musical theater program at Parker High School, Saliby graduated in 2020. Mere months before he picked up his diploma, the Janesville School District announced plans for the Parker Arts Academy—an educational program designed specifically for students interested in pursuing careers in performance art.
Saliby isn’t hating. He just wishes the initiative had launched sooner.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” said Saliby, who was accepted to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City after graduation. “I remember when they first announced it. I was extremely jealous of the kids that were going to be involved because they are going to be learning (about the arts) at school. I fell in love with theater outside of my academics, and they are going to get to learn about it as part of their education.”
The envy is understandable. The academy—funded largely by a grant from the Hendricks Family Foundation—will give high-schoolers their shot at a well-rounded education that covers virtually all aspects of the performing arts.
Coordinating the effort is Jan Knutson, who returns to Parker after retiring last year as the school’s longtime music director. A recognized name in state performance arts, her resume includes a Kohl Education Fellowship Award, a Tommy Hall of Fame Award in 2015, recognition as Parker High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association Teacher of the Year in 2012 and the Janesville School District Teacher of the Year Award for 2018-19.
“This has been a dream of mine through my whole career ... to be a part of an arts academy like this,” she said. “I see our students and recognize all of their skills that we are able to develop to positively influence their entire lives. I love seeing kids so passionate about what they are doing.”
That internal passion, along with the stellar reputation Parker’s theater program has forged across the years, has been a winning combination for countless students.
“Our graduates who have pursued careers in the arts have been quite successful getting into some top-tier schools,” Knutson said. “But I think this kind of academic preparation, as well as that on the performance side, will make them even better equipped as they go into college auditions.”
That is something with which another former student, Addison Schuh, agrees. The 2019 graduate and multi-time Jerry Award winner now is pursuing her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Oklahoma City University, and she believes increased exposure to Parker’s theatrical resources will only benefit future classes.
“I think this program is going to be amazing for students,” said Schuh, whose grandmother, Diane Hendricks, is president of the board helping to fund the academy. “I know if I am auditioning for theater programs in college, there are a few aspects I felt were lacking that I had to get used to as I went on with the process. I feel I would have been even more prepared for things like picking the right songs or taking acting or dance classes.
“This is a great opportunity to help students determine if they want to go into the musical field and if it’s right for them.”
But PAA will be much more than that. Knutson recognizes not all students are focused on singing, dancing and acting, and she is taking that into consideration as she molds the academy’s curriculum.
“We will cover all careers in the performing arts, including things such as performance arts lawyer and arts management positions,” she said. “We are also going to look at the technical side of theater, and as coursework develops over the four-year curriculum, we hope to have classes in costuming, perhaps playwriting, and more.”
Knutson also believes the program will yield benefits for students who venture on to professional paths not associated with the arts.
“We firmly believe that many students involved in the program don’t plan on careers in the arts,” she said. “Past students openly say the skills they learned through being involved in our program helped them with confidence, with being able to work on teams and with management. In today’s world, where people regularly have to speak on Zoom calls and give presentations, all of these things strengthen skills in whatever fields they choose.”
Academically, Knutson said PAA students will spend half of their days studying core subjects such as math, science and social studies and the other half on performance-related topics.
To enroll, students must be either full-time students at Parker or enrolled in the ARISE Virtual Academy with Parker designated as their home school.
Among those who will join the academy this fall is Monroe resident Diana Gutierrez. The soon-to-be junior said she is more than willing to make the daily 70-mile round trip to take part in the program—once she gets her driver’s license.
“I used to go to Edgewood, and that was about an hour,” she said. “I used to ride in with my dad because he worked in Madison. To be honest, this is way better (time-wise) than what I was doing before, and this is what I want to do, so I’m up for it.”
Gutierrez’s introduction to the Janesville theater scene came in 2019, when she took part in the Janesville Summer School production of “Frozen.” There she met local directors and actors, and she came away with a positive impression that prompted her to act once PAA became a reality.
“My ultimate dream is to be on Broadway. I want to be able to get up on that stage and perform,” she said. “I just want to be in a place where I can grow as a person and meet new people who love the same things I do. I want to live out the experience of attending an arts school, being able to take part in plays and working toward my goals.”
The academy’s goal will be to help students such as Gutierrez—and even students not like Gutierrez—reach their full potential.
“The Parker Arts Academy will offer students the opportunity to learn in a nurturing environment that fosters creativity, artistic growth and excellence,” Knutson said. “What I hope that says is that we are not just preparing people specifically to be performers but to be members of a community that will contribute in a positive way, whatever paths their lives take.”