A Fascinating Discussion With SC Governor's School for the Arts Founder Virginia Uldrick About Unleashing Creative Potential

This article was orginally posted Aug 25, 2008.
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I couple of years ago, I interviewed Virginia Uldrick, the founder of the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. (Here's the video of the interview.) Below is a snippet about how Virginia recruited out of the box thinkers, who are among the best in the world at what they do, and molded them into one of best high schools in the world.

There is a powerful lesson here for how to create highly innovative communities. Surround yourself with incredibly talented people. Give them the rules the organization must live by. Then make it possible for talented people to do what they do at the best level possible.

Uldrick: The vision of the school was to create the best arts high school in America, maybe in the world, to become the best in the world. We were successful. We are the number one school in music theory of a school for its size; we are one of sixteen schools in America doing service learning, the right way. We are one of two of the finest dance training programs in the world of a school of its size and the number of students served. Our teacher is one of three people winning the Nijinsky prize, the head of the dance department. How do you get people like this?

Warner: How do you get teachers to do this?

Uldrick: You do that very carefully by advertising in lots of places nationally. You do a lot of research.

Warner: What are you looking for?

Uldrick: Well we wrote the specs on that. We wrote what we wanted in a teacher. First of all, they have to be outside the box. They have to be an artist. The arts teachers have to be artists. They have to be distinguished artists. They have to have made some record in being master teachers, either privately in the colleges or universities or in the public schools.

What do you write? You write the loftiest ideal’s that you can think about. But they are not lofty, just not done in the norm. You have to reach as high as your brain can take you, as your vision can take you. What is it that children need to know and be able to do? Not just this, but this.

Warner: So you've got a vision of the school, you've got wonderful people, how do you make it sure it operates right?

Uldrick: Well you have a plan of action; you know what the rules and regulations are. You have a set of procedures and guidelines to work through. When you are a state agency and you are also a public school you have two agencies you are working for and it’s tough. You have to satisfy both.

Warner: So you have a talented team of people, how do you make sure that the school runs the way you want it to run? You just told me you had a bunch of people thinking outside of the box.

Uldrick: Absolutely.

Warner: Somehow you've got make sure this works.

Uldrick: But you take what they think out of the box and make it fit into what is required.

Warner: How do you do that?

Uldrick: Not easily. But you trust, there has to be major trust between the president, the dean, the faculty, the staff, and the board, major trust.

Warner: How do you get that trust? You have hired a dance teacher who one of few people who won an award that Baryshnikov won. You going to tell that person how to teach dance?

Uldrick: Absolutely not! He is going to tell me how to teach it.

Warner: So how do you do that?

Uldrick: I am going to give him the rules of the agency and the state, and we have to live within those rules. Now, I will make it possible for you to do what you do, and want to do, at the best level possible. You tell me what you want, and I will tell you what you can have. Then we will try to get the wants, but we have to have what we have to have first.

So you build, its building blocks and you school those people into becoming [what they must be]. Yes its frustrating for people who aren’t accustomed to that. Because when you are in a public arena generally you go by these rules and you never step outside the box. As long as you satisfy these rules, it’s okay.

I think we have gone beyond that. I think that both governor’s schools have set a tone to go beyond that but you learn from those people what that have to have to be successful, to give these children the best that is possible and then you work hard with the private sector and the state to say this is what we need. This is not what we want, this is what we need. Now when we get what we need, we will tell you what we need on the next step, which is a want right now.

So you build your program that way. You build trust with your legislature and you build trust with your donors. You also can not build a donor unless you sit with that donor and you tell them what your vision is. You tell them how they can help satisfy that vision.

Not for the president, not for the dean, not for the teachers, but for that child. That child does not know what his vision is yet, fully, but he knows, "I want to be a dancer; I want to be a dancer."

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