From coach to arts booster

When William Skilling became middle school principal in Byron Center, Mich., he hardly imagined himself a champion of the arts. On the contrary, admits the former basketball coach, until taking over in 1991 he'd never even attended a school arts performance.

And yet, listening to the middle and high school choir and band members struggle over the music and a scratchy sound system at a concert left him troubled: How had the district allowed the arts program to slip so far?

At a meeting soon after, he told the superintendent the district should either commit more resources or stop teaching the arts. The superintendent responded by asking him to create an exemplary K-12 arts program from scratch.

It was the start of a decade-long journey that led Mr. Skilling from indifference to passionate support of the arts. It also led him to champion - and bring to completion - a multimillion-dollar arts facility for Byron Center.

Skilling's experience offers a playbook for arts advocates trying to get the message across that the arts matter, even in tight budget times.

Looking back, Skilling says, "The superintendent knew what he was doing" by asking a former coach with no arts background to lead the program. Someone who talked the language of sports might reach parents, board members, and potential donors more successfully.

From his coaching days, Skilling had learned to build connections and get his athletes what they needed. He applied the same approach to the arts.

His goal was no less than getting the Byron Center community to pay as much attention to the arts as it did to sports.

"American culture values athletics more than the arts," he says. So he set out to change that culture, starting with himself. "I made a commitment to attend every performance," he says, "because if you value something, you will spend your time and resources on it."

Although the district's finances were so poor it couldn't afford to bus students, Skilling rearranged teaching posts to hire additional arts faculty, eventually doubling the number of teachers in the middle and high schools.

When an arts faculty member said, half in jest, "Let's build a Broadway-caliber theater," Skilling didn't blink. This was just the kind of big-picture thinking he encouraged.

But as school leaders drew up plans for building a new high school, the cost of a state-of-the-art theater worried them. Administrators feared the bond issue wouldn't pass if the theater were included.

Skilling shifted into high gear. "I pointed out that no one would consider building a high school without a gym, so why would they build a school without an auditorium?"

He talked with students in the existing programs. He was impressed by their determination, even in the face of poor facilities and lackluster support.

When he went back to the school board, he asked them to imagine what it would be like to train for months to perform only for a weekend, as opposed to weekly contests of athletes.

He reminded them that school pride, so conspicuous on the playing field and basketball court, should extend to the fine arts as well.

In meetings of his fledgling fine arts council, Skilling asked relentless questions: What would an outstanding program look like? What components should it have? What was the goal? The teachers were skeptical. Was the district serious about investing in the arts?

Skilling told them, in a phrase that would become his mantra, "Forget about the money. That's the easiest part. The hard part is deciding what excellence is and when you've arrived at it."

The problem, he says, was that they were all thinking too small. Why not bring the community into the project by making the theater a venue for touring off-Broadway productions and other outreach activities?

Skilling had timing and the superintendent on his side - and he had backing from board members with children, especially children who played instruments.

Bob Kaiser served as president of the school board during this time. He says Skilling's determination caused concern among athletic boosters on the board, who feared the costly theater might come at the expense of other programs.

A deal was struck. The arts center could proceed, but Skilling agreed to raise private funds to equip it.

The first decision the arts council made was to focus on family-friendly entertainment. Byron Center is dominated by people of Dutch and German background with conservative political inclinations and strong family ties.

The second was to ensure an educational component by requiring that performers and technicians who came to town offer workshops to the kids. The theater would also set aside tickets for families who otherwise couldn't afford them.

Skilling lined up his offense. He argued that the arts motivate students, improve behavior and strengthen the school climate.

"The heart of the issue," he says, "Is that kids who are involved in the arts do better academically." He adds: "It's the greatest program you can offer at-risk kids."

In convincing the board he also cited a University of Michigan survey on the common attributes of great leaders. It wasn't an Ivy League education or business school connection that most shared, but rather, an arts background.

Eventually the bond passed. The high school and the Van Singel Fine Arts Center were built, and Skilling attracted sponsors and donations that enabled the center to install topnotch equipment.

Today operations are running smoothly, audiences are filling the 800-seat theater, and the center is nearly self-supporting.

At the same time, student involvement in the arts has increased from about 25 percent in 1991 to 85 percent in 2002.

Byron Center, whose K-12 school population has ballooned from 2,100 to 3,300 kids, now boasts five choirs, three bands, and an orchestra, and a steady supply of music awards.

And academically the school has made gains even as it has strengthened its arts program. For five consecutive years, American College Test scores at the school have gone up. Scores on state tests have improved as well.

There are many in Byron Center who give Skilling the credit.

"Bill knows how to articulate a mission," Mr. Kaiser says. "He can explain a plan so that people can see where he's going. He's a visionary."

There are those, however, who charge that the success of Byron Center's arts program is more about the strengths of Skilling as an individual than a victory for arts education.

It's a notion that Skilling - who since taken a new position as superintendent of the Webberville Community Schools, in another part of Michigan - characteristically rejects.

He has given dozens of seminars and talks on how to build support for the arts. If the vision is there, he insists, the funds will follow.

Christopher Card, director of vocal music at Byron Center High School, concurs to a point. "Yes, a committee could do what Bill did, if they combined the talents he brought."

But at the same time Mr. Card doesn't discount the importance of Skilling's ability to persuade.

"This is a guy who can talk to blue-collar workers at a football game and turn around and talk to a bank CEO," he says. "He's in his own category."

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