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The Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) is a secondary school located in Birmingham, founded by the state legislature in 1971. ASFA offers tuition-free education for talented and gifted students from all over Alabama. Students are accepted into the school by audition and have the option to choose from six intensive specialty programs: creative writing, dance, mathematics and science, music, theatre, and visual arts. Additionally, they must complete all core academic requirements for a regular Alabama public high school diploma.
ASFA operates under the guidance of an board of trustees, comprising at least 17 individuals from various professions and backgrounds, including the arts and academics. The Alabama Board of Education appoints these representatives, who then employ an executive director to manage the school. ASFA relies primarily on private-sector funding disseminated by the ASFA Foundation, a non-profit group that also raises money for instructional enrichment and student support.
ASFA can accommodate up to 375 students and provides several facilities, including studios, classrooms, labs, practice rooms, performance spaces, a library, a cafeteria, and even dormitory space for up to 80 individuals. The school attracts a diverse student body, with around 64% White, 19% African American, 15% Asian, and 2% Hispanic in the 2007-08 school year. ASFA emphasizes learning and performance, offering students outreach opportunities to other schools and the community through performances, lecture demonstrations, and contests.
ASFA students have excelled in national and state competitions, in testing, and in receiving acceptances and scholarships from leading conservatories, colleges, universities, and performance companies. Graduates of ASFA have achieved success in various fields throughout Alabama, the United States, and abroad.
ASFA's roots date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when various Birmingham parents and arts advocates appealed to state leaders about the need for a school for students interested in ballet and music. In response, Governor Lurleen Wallace proclaimed the Alabama High School for the Fine Arts pilot program in August 1967, which included a discretionary start-up grant of $10,000. The school subsequently received direct support from Governor Albert Brewer and Governor George C. Wallace. Today, ASFA continues to provide quality education to talented and gifted students in the field of fine arts.
The year was 1967 when the school first opened its doors, operating from both Birmingham's Phillips High School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, with Jack Mann, Phillips' boys advisor, serving as director. Focusing primarily on dance and theatre programs, the school also offered private lessons to a select few music and visual arts students. Mornings were reserved for academic classes at Phillips, with students pursuing arts classes in the afternoons.
In 1971, a joint resolution by the legislature established the school, with yearly funding in the education department's budget and a board of directors appointed by the state board of education. Huntingdon College's then head of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts, James R. Nelson, was named executive director in 1972. Designed by him, the basic curricula for dance, music, theatre, and visual arts were implemented, and his wife, Andrea C. Nelson, became the music chair. The school then moved to Samford University and Homewood High School that same year.
In 1974, the school expanded to include seventh and eighth grades and a creative writing department, adopting its present name. Birmingham City Schools provided four teachers to provide core academic instruction, and ASFA moved again to Birmingham-Southern College.
The ASFA Foundation was established in 1976, primarily to acquire a campus and to fundraise. The old Eva Comer residence hall in downtown Birmingham on North 18th Street, along with two adjacent warehouses partitioned for various arts and academic workspaces, became the school's new home in 1977.
Frances Verstandig, a former national Junior League official, became the foundation's second executive director in 1986, and two years later, the foundation launched a capital campaign, headed by Emil Hess, the chair of Parisian, Inc., to raise funds for a new campus. With funding from city, county, state, and private sources, $10 million was collected over three years. In 1990, the foundation and city of Birmingham exchanged properties, allowing ASFA to build its new campus on 8th Avenue North between 18th and 19th Streets, one block east of its old location.
In 1991, a sizeable financial gift from the Russell Corporation in Alexander City enabled the school to add its sixth specialty, the Russell Mathematics and Science program, which was partially based in a nearby building loaned by the Alabama Power Company. The school's enabling legislation was altered in 1992, specifically defining the authority of the school's new board of trustees. On April 5, 1993, after years of preparation, the school moved to its new home, becoming the first state-supported residential and commuter secondary school designed exclusively for gifted and talented students. An attached theater, a math and science wing, and a creative writing wing were added later.
Following Nelson's retirement in June 1996, the ASFA welcomed John Northrop as its new executive director in January 1997. With a thriving career as an ASFA staff member from 1980-1986 and subsequent experience as a public school administrator, Northrop was well-equipped for the position. Then, in January 2000, the ASFA Foundation appointed Bryding Adams, an accomplished author and former museum professional, to serve as its executive director.
Fast forward to 2006 when the ASFA Foundation launched a campaign to secure a staggering $12 million in funding. The objective? To build a state-of-the-art, 650-seat performance center on adjacent property, as previously agreed upon under an economic redevelopment contract with the city of Birmingham.
The year 2007 marked a turning point for ASFA, as it gained greater independence from the state. This was achieved through a shift in funding, from partial support by the state school board to direct legislative appropriation for all of the institution's operational costs. This progression was finalized after a series of significant changes, starting in 2003 when the school terminated its personnel relationship with Birmingham City Schools, and further transitioning with a change in law in 2006 which eliminated oversight by the state school board.
In August 2011, Northrop stepped down, making way for Michael Meeks, a seasoned music educator and school administrator who assumed the role of ASFA executive director. As we move towards the present day, July 2020 marks the arrival of Tim Mitchell, who has recently taken up the mantle as the new ASFA executive director.
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