Kibitz (CHAT) 4.0 – Mary Ley, CEO of Arkansas Arts Academy

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This week we had the tremendous pleasure of chatting with Mary Ley, CEO of Arkansas Arts Academy, and her enthusiasm and fresh ideas gave us such energy about what is ahead educationally in our community.

It is no secret, Northwest Arkansas is raising the bar and gaining clout in the national arts scene with organizations like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Amazeum, the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion, the 21c Museum Hotel, and the Walton Arts Center.  Art is becoming a more vibrant reflection of all aspect's of the region's culture, and this is reflected back into this new educational approach.

Arkansas Arts Academy, formerly known as Benton County School of the Arts (BCSA), has undergone some major shifts in the last few months - from a new name, to a new leadership team, development of a stronger curriculum, resources, and community collaborations - the change is monumental.

Mary Ley joined Arkansas Arts Academy as the new CEO in July, leaving her role in the Bentonville School District as their Executive Director of Communication/PR & Community Partnerships, with her background in program development, and as an arts educator in Colorado, she had led the charge in several arts and community based initiatives nation-wide.  We are so thankful for her time in sharing with us how the school is elevating education in Northwest Arkansas.

Thank you, Mary, for your time in chatting with us this week.

leyWhat's in a name?  Tell us more about the significance in the re-branding of the school...

The re-branding process was a necessary step in creating a better identity for the school.  It also helps better communicate that we serve our region's children, as a whole, even as a state and not just Benton county.  We have children who commute over an hour and a half a day to attend here.  The former name was not reflective of who we really are and the people group that we actually serve.

The new brand also empowers us to create a reputation as a recognized national arts institution with high academic standards serving K-12 as a public charter school.  Our goal is to become the best arts school in the nation, and the new name allows us the opportunity to build our program to meet this goal.  With the re-branding, we are also embracing a true arts-integrated curriculum and have recently become an A+ school.  Our high school follows not only core curriculum, but SMART core which follows high academic standards, and a strong level of commitment from our students to their learning.

There is no other school in the country that has the opportunities that we do, with having Crystal Bridges in our backyard as a resource, and I am quickly realizing that our school is one of the best kept secrets in Northwest Arkansas.  Since July, we have secured over a million dollars in new funding from community partners, including a major investment from the Walton Family Foundation.

What steps are being taken to further advance the arts-integration approach?

We will think of every child as a work of art.  Each child is unique, gifted, and has individual talents.  Our commitment to this process is multi-faceted, but included hiring two new positions as Arts Integration Curriculum Coordinators whose sole focus is to resource, train, support, and guide the arts process with our educators.  We have added two new K-8 research computer labs, and an outdoor classroom.

We also have created new community partners with several key organizations, such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Amazeum, Trike Theatre, Bike Bentonville, the Walton Arts Center, the University of Arkansas School of Architecture and Design, and many more.

We are now considered a "museum school" and a large part of our curriculum is working hand-in-hand with Crystal Bridges to engage not only our students, but their families as a whole.

We have a goal that 90% of our students' families will visit the museum outside of normal school hours, and we will be hosting several educational experiences that are beyond the classroom to create family learning.  This includes "Nights at the Museum" and curriculum we will be providing for dinnertime discussions aka "Brain Food", etc. to give families resources beyond typical homework.

We have also been given $452,000 specifically for technology arts integration which will provide curriculum and technology, including 850 iPads for our students with access to academic apps and learning opportunities.


Part of the additional funds we have raised also include funding for professional trainings and development.  We will be sending staff to four of the top arts schools in the nation this year to learn best practices and gain insights that can be replicated and expanded in our school. 

Also, in 2015 we will be hosting a college fair for our high school students at the 21c Hotel & Museum where we will be inviting 100 of the top arts colleges in the world to meet with our students and engage them about future educational opportunities.

What sets Arkansas Arts Academy apart?

Our high school alone consists of 250 students, and our graduation rate is 95%, well exceeding the state average of 81%.  Our senior class averages $39,000(+) per student in scholarships for post-secondary education.


We are also looking at STEM programming, which emphasizes on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  We will be working to grow these programs to compliment and support our arts education.

We have a lot to be proud of, and a great deal more to look forward to in the future.


Last modified onTuesday, 15 March 2016 13:25