The team training the next generation of musicians at BHS

Fine arts education has some unexpected benefits for students, according to the four directors at Batesville High School.

The programs – band, theatre, choir, and orchestra – teach problem solving, communication skills, and how to work as part of a team, in addition to technical skills for future musicianship and performing arts opportunities.

These are useful skills for securing future employment.

According to a survey recently released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 86 percent of those responsible for hiring want a candidate to demonstrate his “ability to work as part of a team.”

Imagine being a part of a team where there is no bench/backup and no do-over. That’s choir, according to Choir Director Alicia Davidson. “Everyone has to be on the same page” – and ready to go.

Hannah Cummings, the theater director agrees.  “It is not about the individuals, it is about the group, all the time.”

Learning how to be part of a cohesive team – it takes time. Which is why the fine arts programs are structured so that the directors and the students are able to spend four to six years together.

“When I was student teaching, a colleague told me I would have to get to know all the kids before I would make any progress,” said Band Director Josh Poff. “He was absolutely right. I remember spending my first year getting to know the kids, what makes them tick, what makes them happy, and what brings them joy.”

Spending time with them is a big part of the process because it develops trust.

“It’s more than:  ‘You come here, do what you are supposed to do and get an A,’” Alicia said.

“You have that relationship where you can step outside [of the typical] and say:   ‘Okay, well she’s asking me to do this. Seems a little weird, but I trust this person and I trust what we are doing here,’ and they try.”

This level of trust leads to better communication. And communication is necessary for a group when they perform. During a performance, the group is collectively telling a story to the audience members.

Therefore, in these programs, “the Chromebooks are shut,” Alicia said. “We create a safe space for them to feel, experience, and be uncomfortable.”

Especially valuable in an era of distraction and avoidance. Which brings us to another aspect of the arts: empathy

“One of the first few weeks of Theater II this semester, we read this play called ‘The Yellow Boat’, which is about the AIDS epidemic and the impact it had… There was this little boy who got AIDS and ultimately died from it. By the end, half the class was just in tears,” Hannah said. “That’s the kind of effect the arts can have.”

Josh said vulnerability is key.  “We have to push the boundaries ourselves to show that is part of it (the success of the arts). We have to take steps to do what others might see as embarrassing.”

Instead of avoiding trying new things that might be embarrassing, the fine arts programs teach students to identify the discomfort, and effectively push through it. The students then apply this discipline to other areas of life.

“In a culture where it is just easy to pick up your phone and avoid things that make you feel uncomfortable  —  avoid circumstances  —  we have to think through them and have our students process through them so they can perform it accurately,” Alicia said.

Here is an example.

“At Christmas one of my choirs did a song, a carol based off when Herod committed mass genocide against the babies in Jerusalem. For students to sing it accurately   —  with the right mood  —  and to understand the significance of how the carol came to be, we had to talk about what that would have been like,” she said. “It was very uncomfortable.”

Doing something to stretch someone to the point of discomfort is necessary for growth, and prompts problem solving.

“One thing we do is we celebrate mistakes, and follow it up by asking: ‘How can you fix it? Do you know what you did wrong? Do you know how to fix it?’” Alicia said.  

“We make it a good thing, like ‘Cool, you were so confident in yourself that you were not embarrassed to have everyone know you were human.’ But then immediately after:  ‘What exactly didn’t work? How can you fix it in the future?’”

She said this type of teaching is especially valuable in junior high because the kids get picked on. They trip, and people laugh at them. So instead of ridicule, it’s:  “I am giving you a sticker AND asking you what you can do differently in the future,” she said. Examples: “My voice cracked, but I was going for it” or “I sang it for two beats instead of one beat, but now I know what I’ve done.”

It prompts the students to strive for selfawareness, and teaches them how to problem solve in those moments.

Alicia said she does not teach the students to learn music by memorization. They learn how to do the work themselves, rather than relying on someone to do it for them.

“I don’t sing for them. They have to figure it out. Starting in sixth grade, we begin to learn intervals by using the steps of scale, the same ‘Do Re Mi’ stuff from the Sound of Music,” she said. “Then we start skipping over notes and introducing intervals of greater distances.”

This process enables students to eventually look at a piece of music and generate the pitches in their head without ever needing to hear someone else play it.

“This is how we develop independent musicianship,” she said. “We (the four fine arts directors) equip the students with a lot of independent skills so they can do music forever.”

Are there social benefits for participants in these programs?

All the while the group is problem solving, they are becoming friends.  In a time when loneliness is a growing problem, and teen suicide is on the rise (to read more, click here), students find friendship within these programs.

“The way fine arts works, you are there for several years,” said Orchestra Director Noah Davidson.  “In the beginning class, I already see students become friends, and I can tell they will stay together for a long time.”

Josh agrees.  “Going through those experiences together is one of the privileges of the fine arts.”

Speaking of going through experiences together…

These four directors would love to be able to do more integrated joint performances.

Josh mentioned an example being having a pit orchestra for musicals.

“There are several plays that call for music accompaniment,” Hannah said.  “Unfortunately it just isn’t an option right now.”  She said it would require a facility with a live pit.

“I’d also love to collaborate on smaller events  –  like fine arts showcases to give more performance opportunities for all of our students,” she said. “I think it’d also be great to combine our end-of-year activities  –  to have a big fine arts banquet to unify us as a department.”

Josh said he would also like to see band and choir be able to provide integrated performances.

What goes into each performance?

Hannah says first and foremost, the students think about the audience.

“When we’re making Theatre, the audience is at the core of everything we do. We make choices and rehearse based on how we want the audience to interpret a story,  and react to these stories.

When the performers and audience members both dig down and feel this empathy, pretty amazing things can happen. There are scientific studies that suggest that audience members’ heartbeats sync up when they’re watching a theatrical performance. That’s a pretty powerful idea.

We spend weeks and months at a time to prepare for a performance,” she said. “We get just a few chances to perform and hopefully receive the reaction we’ve been working towards…We get a solitary moment. We perform. Then we move on.”

Why choose to spend time teaching fine arts to kids?

For Hannah, it’s a legacy.

“I grew up with a teacher for a mom. Her dedication to her students definitely inspired me from a young age to pursue a teaching career.

I joined band and choir in sixth grade after playing piano for several years. I’d always loved music but in 10th grade, my oral communications teacher convinced me to audition for the musical (not that it was a hard sell). From that moment I was hooked.”

She said cast members form strong bonds. She has also seen it build confidence in kids, and inspire their personal growth. 

Hannah has been personally affected as well. “My theatre friends in high school created a safe haven for me to be myself and forget about all of the awful high school things we all go through,” she said. “Teaching theatre allows me to do the same for today’s students.”

Speaking of today’s students…

Alicia’s choir has an officer’s panel. The students are nominated and are voted in by their peers.  These officers run some of the rehearsals, take attendance, and teach lessons to sixth-grade choir members. They also organize Christmas caroling for different groups in town.

Giving students opportunities to grow leadership skills is an important benefit of these programs.

Some of the choir’s leaders this year are Emma and Caroline Russell, Nate McDonald, and Aristyn Glasgow.

For orchestra, Noah said the leaders are Erin Seymore, Brandon Grant, and Nate McDonald.

“Erin is always prepared for class, and leads the others by example,” he said. “When she is willing to play out loud in class, it helps the others to be confident also.”

He said despite Nate being new last year, he is the primary leader in the cello section. He is also willing to help younger students.

“Brandon is a super hard worker,” he said. “He practices more than any student I have ever known.” Also…willing to help others.

For the theatre department, it’s Kenly Long, Jose Hernandez, Jazmine Edwardson, and Cristal Martinez.

“Kenly has shown dedication to making sure the program is strong after she graduates,” Hannah said. “She builds relationships with some of the younger members, helping them learn lines, as well as helps with sets and costumes.”

She said Jose brings an appreciated does of enthusiasm to the group. “He always shows up with a smile.”

Growing more musicians and performers in Arkansas is a worthwhile endeavor, according to a new study commissioned by the Northwest Arkansas (NWA) Council and cultural planning firm Sound Diplomacy.

Nelson Peacock, president of the NWA Council, said in a March 9 news release: “A vibrant music economy contributes to economic growth, workforce development, artistic education and tourism.”

Which is why Sound Diplomacy made several recommendations to be addressed throughout the next three years, one of which is “building partnerships with K-12 schools, arts education organizations, Northwest Arkansas Community College and the University of Arkansas to create intentional pipelines of local skills and creativity.” Another is “activating cities, through cultural planning, to strategically support music with municipal resources and new and existing venues.”

Not a bad time to invest in the fine arts in Arkansas.


The BSD Millage, Part 2: How Batesville tax rates stack up

This article is the second in a series about the upcoming School Millage vote.

The upcoming school millage vote affects property tax, but not all millage votes do. For instance the vote to build the community center affected the local sales tax rate.

In order to consider a tax increase, voters need to know about our current tax rates. Here’s how both our property taxes and sales taxes stack up against other areas.

Our Sales Tax Rate

In 2010, Batesville voters said no (by 70 votes) to a $45 million project.

The proposal was adjusted, and in 2012, voters said yes to a $25 million project that included a 100,000 square foot Community Center, $2.1 million baseball complex, and $800,000 soccer complex and rodeo arena.

The community center opened in June 2017, and one year later had 8,400 members.

In 2008, voters said yes to a 1/4 cent sales tax increase that allowed the county to offer an incentive package to attract industry to the area.

When Pilgrim’s Pride shut down operations in Batesville in 2013, which affected 400 employees, the Independence County Economic Development Commission was able to attract Ozark Mountain Poultry to the area, and retain 250 employees, because of this incentive.

Arkansas has the third highest combined average state and local sales tax rate in the nation, at 9.43 percent.

Batesville is above the Arkansas average, at 10 percent. Sulphur Rock is below average at 8 percent. To check a rate for a specific address, click here.

See chart below for how Batesville’s sales tax rate compares to other cities in Arkansas. It is currently the same as Fayetteville and Bentonville, and below Conway.

Our Property Tax Rate

Currently, Batesville has an average school millage for Arkansas.

Passing the minimum plan would put the district’s millage in between Fayetteville and Bentonville school districts (see chart below).

Bentonville and Fayetteville school districts are growing (at rates of 7.5 and 6.3 percent, respectively, since 2016). The Batesville school district is growing at a similar rate, 6 percent.

Passing the complete plan would position Batesville as having the second highest school millage rate in the state (see chart below).

It would also place Batesville as having the highest overall total millage rate in the state (includes school, city, and county millage rates).

…compared to other states:

Arkansas property tax rates are lower than most other states. (Arkansas has the fifth lowest median property tax rate in the nation.)


Property tax rates in Batesville and in Arkansas have some room to grow. Sales tax rates do not.

To read the author’s disclaimer and see a list of sources, click here.

To read the first article in the series, click here.

THE BSD MILLAGE, PART 1: An auditorium and a gym

This article is the first in a series about the upcoming School Millage vote.

Batesville School District wants to upgrade its facilities, and fund it via a personal property tax rate increase. It has offered three proposals for citizens to consider.

The Auditorium

All of the three improvement options center around two large additions: an auditorium and a gym.

Russellville School District’s auditorium, which seats 1,875, was used for an event 26 weekends last year, according to their Executive Director, Chrissy Clayton. She said their building hosted 170 events throughout the year, 6 of which filled it to capacity. Thirty of those events were rentals (non-district). The 130,000 square foot Center was completed in 2012, after the people of Russellville said yes to a 6.9 millage.

Hannah Cummings, Theatre Director for Batesville High School, and Josh Poff, Band Director for BHS, visit with Daniel Stahl, the technical director for Russellville’s The Center For the Arts on Sep 14, 2019 during a fact finding trip for the upcoming millage.

Batesville School District no longer has an auditorium.

Its previous auditorium was built in 1951 and was in use by students until last school year, for a total of 68 years.

The cost to renovate the old auditorium up to code would cost 97 percent of what a new building would cost, according to the district’s Buildings and Grounds Steering Committee member Courtney Beal.

To build one that meets the minimum requirements for a 5A school, the district says, would cost $17 million. They want to build a new one.

The Gym

The district also wants to build a new gymnasium, since the current school gym has been used for 50 years. When it was built, the school was classified as 3A, and the population was 33 percent less than now. Also, the only team using it in 1969 was the men’s basketball team.

The school’s architect says a new gym would cost $15 million. Same story with the renovations. It would cost more to renovate than build new.

To build these two facilities, and update existing facilities, the district is asking local property owners to contribute $45 to $85 million.

The Cost

PLAN A, the lowest option, a $45 million bond:

An increase of $13.50 per month per $100,000 of a person’s property value (to include homes, real estate, business, vehicles)

That tax amount increases for Option B and Option C.


Asking locals to pay a higher tax is not an easy ask. Tight budgets could get tighter. Those on a fixed income would have less. (Click here to read what the local tax collector had to say.)

One of the FAQs, according to the school district’s information, is whether the millage will affect Senior Citizens at the same rate. The answer is yes.

Some of these concerns were expressed by citizens who attended the town hall meeting at the community center on Tuesday, Nov 12.

To hear more concerns being expressed, watch the district’s first meeting, which was broadcast live on White River Now’s social media page, and as of Nov 17, had 4,600 views.

Why should I invest in these two buildings? Will they help the economy grow?

Years ago, voters said yes to a millage for the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (UACCB) to build a 1,500-seat auditorium, hoping it would provide economic growth. The college completed Independence Hall in 2001 and made the final payment in 2018.

According to the Strategic Community Plan Report released by Impact Independence County in 2015: “Despite being a nearly $50 million a year industry, Independence County’s tourism sector has been on a steady decline, both in terms of visitor interest and revenue, for more than a decade.”

Which means that unfortunately, building the largest auditorium in town did not increase tourism revenue during that decade.

Still, the facility is widely used. Examples of recent events there include: former NASA Engineer, Dr. Christine Darden, presented to more than 1,000 local middle school and junior high students on Apr 11, 2019, and Lee Greenwood held a concert there on Sep 7, 2019.

Currently, Batesville School District is not in the running for hosting events. They lose out to places like Russellville, chosen to host the State Thespian Festival in Feb 2019, which lasted three days and included 1,222 high school students from around the state and 98 guest artists, including a producer from New York City. This is their third time to host, and they say they were chosen because of their facility and people.

Will local growth eventually alleviate some of this new tax burden?


Tourism is the second largest industry in the state and has shown growth for nine consecutive years. Batesville wanted to experience that growth, so voters said yes to hiring a full-time position devoted entirely to growing the local tourism. Kyle Christopher was hired in 2016, and since then, the tourism industry in Batesville has been increasing. Last year, visitors paid close to $1 million in taxes to our community, and travel expenditures in the county were up 4.2 percent.

If the tourism industry in Batesville continues to grow, Batesville will grow, and the millage debt can be paid off sooner. (More tax payers means more money for the school and higher property values for land owners.)


In 2002 (the year after Independence Hall was completed), Bad Boy Mowers of Batesville sold their first mower. They now employ more than 700 people. They manufacture and store their zero-turn mowers in more than one million square feet of facilities, according to their website. They currently host their annual meeting in Little Rock. Batesville does not have the facilities to host a large event like this one.


Banking deposits in Independence County increased 18 percent in 2018 compared to 2014, according to data reported in the 2018 Economic Report for Batesville and Independence County (Report is available on First Community Bank’s website.)


In 2017, White River Medical Center welcomed its first class of resident doctors, and now has 29 Internal Medicine residents. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) clinic in Batesville welcomed its first class of residents this summer, and at full capacity will have 18 family medicine residents. Many residents do not come alone. They bring family members with them. Which increases the population and economy.

According to the American Medical Association, a physician who practices in Arkansas provides an average yearly economic benefit of $1.8 million to the community where they practice. (Jobs are created to support them. The average number is 11 per physician.)

Unity Health, located in Searcy, has graduated 27 residents since they started in 2015, and has retained 5, or 18.5 percent, to work within their hospital system, according to their Graduate Medical Education Manager, Leslie Provence.

If Batesville follows that same pattern, the area would retain 4 physicians and their families every year. Which means, unless those physicians are directly replacing a retiring physician, the local economy could experience economic growth of $7.2 million per year.

To read the author’s disclaimer and see a list of sources, click here.

To read part 2 in the series, click here.

Independence County needs foster homes ASAP

An average day in Independence County sees 58 to 70 children in the foster care program, while the average number of available foster homes here is only 13.

There is good news in the foster care world: Statewide, the foster care system has improved, according to a recent address by Governor Asa Hutchinson. 

Unfortunately though, in Independence County the situation is still urgent. 

An average day in Independence County sees 58 to 70 children in the foster care program, while the average number of available foster homes here is only 13.

“When I took office in 2015, our child-welfare and foster-care system was in urgent need of improvement,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson wrote in an October report. At that time a review of the child-welfare and foster-care system was ordered, with dire findings. “It was a heart-rending judgment on our shortcomings,” the governor recalled of that initial starting point.

“I was especially alarmed to learn that caseworkers sometimes had to choose between taking children to their own homes, leaving the children at a division office, or pleading with foster parents to make room for one more child,” Hutchinson said.

After three years of work, the foster care emergency has drastically improved, according to the governor who noted one example of a caseworker whose average case load decreased from 85 to 15 under the leadership of Mischa Martin at the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). He called the progress a restoration of hope, extending a special thanks to the private sector faith-based organizations that have played a huge role by partnering with DCFS to recruit more foster and adoptive families.

The CALL is one such faith-based organization, and perhaps the most impactful.

It has created a streamlined system of recruiting and approving foster/adoptive families so the process is both quicker and easier. By signing up through The CALL, families are able to condense the lengthy training modules from 6+ months, down to two intensive weekends.

The CALL opened 214 new foster homes in Arkansas in 2018 and 82 new adoptive homes, according to its annual report. Families recruited by The CALL adopted 184 children out of foster care statewide last year.

And it is the Independence County chapter of The CALL that hopes it can change the situation in Independence County.

“The CALL started in Independence County in 2014, and for a couple of years it was going really strong,” explained Rodney Stroud, new director of the local chapter, attributing the initial progress to then-director Summer Sudol. “There were about 17 to 20 families at one time.”

After the loss of the director though, Stroud says the chapter basically went dormant. A renewed effort last October succeeded in bringing on a new 7-person leadership team, including Stroud. During the year that followed, the tide has shifted.

“There were 3 CALL families when we started and now we have 7 foster families, 6 (more) in the process of becoming approved homes, and 2 more with paperwork out,” Stroud said. “We think we need about 35 families (average of 2 per home), so we’re almost halfway there.”

Stroud said that although a good handful of people stepped up to lead, a few key leadership and volunteer positions still need to be filled. Aside from that, the main needs are “fundraising and families”.

There are currently about 70 kids in foster care from Independence County, and many of them have nowhere to go.

The extreme shortage of foster homes means Independence County children are often sent to other counties for temporary placement, leaving behind their schools, friends, teachers, in addition to their parents with whom they are allowed visits. The periodic court dates involved in the foster process are also held in the case’s originating county.

When the children are placed in homes outside the county, the distance and frequent trips can create a hardship on everyone involved.

As the director of The CALL, Stroud hears many reasons not to foster. The most common: The fear of a painful goodbye when children leave their care.

“It absolutely does hurt,” Stroud said, “but when you think about it, that’s selfish. That’s making our comfort more important than these children’s needs.”

For more information on donating, volunteering, or signing up as a foster/adoptive family through The CALL, text or call 870-612-4904 or visit

The state’s Division of Children and Family Services, which oversees all foster care, recently released this infographic to help put the agency’s shortages in perspective.