Howard Middle School Arts Magnet Embraces Downtown

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Howard Middle School, formerly Orlando High School. (Photo by Logan Lamphere)

One of Orange County Public Schools’ downtown success stories has been Howard Middle School. The school had been declining in enrollment until the magnet program for the visual and performing arts was located here in 2011. Today, a waiting list exists for entry into this popular school located in the Thornton Park Neighborhood and Lake Lawsona Historic District.

The school was actually built in 1926 as Orlando High School. According to Wikipedia and the Howard website, prior to 1952, there were only two high schools in the city of Orlando: Orlando High School and Jones High School, which was a segregation-era, black-only high school until integration was enforced.

The gymnasium was added in the late 1930s. The cafeteria/band room was added in 1948 and the old OHS letters can still be seen on the southwest corner of the building. Some famous graduates of OHS include actor Buddy Ebsen and astronaut John Young. In 1952, Orlando High was split into what became Edgewater High School and William R. Boone High School, and the former Orlando High campus became Howard Middle School. The building was renamed for Mr. C.E. Howard, a school trustee of earlier years.

When the Orange County School Board designated Howard as a visual and performing arts magnet school in 2011, their goal was to “lead students on a path toward creative and academic excellence and prepare them for successful high school and college careers.” Nancy Robbinson, school board member for the downtown area, said that Howard was on the verge of being closed, due to competition with private downtown schools. Bringing the magnet program helped save the school.

Today, Howard offers the widest selection of academic and elective courses of any middle school in Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). As a magnet school for the visual and performing arts, Howard provides a wide array of electives from which students may choose, including 24 visual and performing arts courses plus four enhanced elective courses. Students may also take several courses for high school credit, including honors Earth space science. Many levels of art, band, orchestra, chorus, dance and drama are just some of the opportunities available for their students, both zoned and magnet alike. Although the school is technically zoneless, students from the surrounding neighborhood are given a preference during the lottery selection for enrollment.

Students paint an old piano with Van Gogh’s Starry Night. (photo courtesy of Howard Middle School)

Clinton McCracken helped bring the magnet program to Howard, and teaches visual arts, in addition to managing the magnet program. McCracken said that as the programs expand, the need for additional arts-related resources also grows. McCracken explains that students choose a “major” upon entering the program. With more applications than positions, the students that are there want to be there. With such a large arts community in Central Florida, children can draw from world-class resources, and can actually see futures as local, professional artists. McCracken is working to let neighbors know about how Howard has transformed into an arts school, and would like to encourage participation from the downtown community.

Danial Huff is completing his first year as principal at Howard, and thanks school board member Nancy Robbinson for her support. Principal Huff has worked on utilizing Orlando’s artistic resources, having Howard students participate in programs with the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the Orlando Philharmonic, the Orlando Repertory Theatre, Universal Orlando, and UCF. Students have put on shows at the Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola, and have had master classes by guest artists. Huff said that students were able to observe the installation of the Pulse Memorial Mural in Thornton Park, and interacted with actors and staff of the Lion King Broadway musical when it performed at the Dr. Phillips Center. Like McCracken, Huff would like to encourage engagement with surrounding neighborhoods such as Thornton Park, which has a strong tradition in the arts.

One challenge with a zoneless school is increased traffic, as parents drive their children to Howard from all over the county. OCPS currently does not provide any transportation to Howard students. Some students from surrounding schools that were being rebuilt or renovated, such as the Lake Como School, were bussed last year, but that will end with the upcoming school year.

Last year Howard was named a “School of Excellence” by Magnet Schools of America, the organization that named it the top “New and Emerging Magnet” program in the country when it first began. Howard also won an award as an “Exemplary School” by Art Schools Network and was selected as the top arts school in the country two years ago as an “Outstanding Arts School.”

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