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Ronnie Lilly 

Guardian Angel

Rowena Lilly sits in her office surrounded by photos, plants, student paintings and drawings, smiling slightly. After 35 years as arts education coordinator for Durham Public Schools (DPS), Lilly has a lot to reflect on. "It never occurred to me to be anything other than an art teacher," she says.

A native of Asheville, "Ronnie" Lilly was encouraged as a child in drawing, square dancing, acting and other artistic pursuits. She came to the Triangle in the '60s to get a bachelor's, and later a master's degree, at UNC-Chapel Hill. Since coming on board at DPS, Lilly has witnessed school integration, participated in the merging of city and county schools, and advocated for continued and improved arts education programming.

At a time when the nationwide trend places arts programming first on the list of school budget cuts, Durham's public schools remain consistent in their commitment to the arts. "I've been lucky to be in this town," says Lilly. "I have never felt a lack of support for arts education in this community. I think that reading and writing and math are important, and nobody can deny that, but I don't think anyone has lost sight of the part that the arts can play in that."

Lilly's eyes shine as she speaks. "I know that some kids are in school because of the arts and what they can do." She is a firm believer in the power of the arts not only to develop creativity, but to motivate students, to teach responsibility and to foster discipline. "Arts students develop a sense of self-awareness," she explains.

What exactly does the arts education coordinator do? Lilly pulls out her job description. "What it means on a piece of paper is that you plan and work with teachers on curriculum, organization, staff development, manage the budget, help recruit, interview, and recommend. ... " She pauses for a moment. "What it really means more than anything is working with teachers and establishing those relationships. Trying to make the arts program overall as effective as it can be. Trying to maintain resources, not only monetary, but community resources. Being a good listener."

All of which Lilly does in a calm and nurturing manner.

"Her personality is low key," says Tamela Davis, art teacher at Hope Valley Elementary, "She has the biggest hat to wear--all the arts programs: dance, visual art, music, drama--and she wears it well. Ronnie is the bridge between the public schools and the community of Durham."

Lilly claims her greatest contribution is in equalizing the arts program. "I've tried to keep an eye on the program and make sure it doesn't just grow in one area, that things keep getting better in all areas." According to the teachers she supports and the community arts groups with whom she works, Lilly is a guardian angel.

Ann Denlinger, superintendent for Durham Public Schools, recognizes Lilly's efforts. "Ronnie Lilly is one of Durham Public Schools' true treasures. Her contribution to the arts and arts education for our students, and indeed, the larger community, can never fully be measured."

In Lilly's tenure at DPS, two arts magnet schools (Durham School of the Arts and R. N. Harris Integrated Arts & Core Knowledge Magnet) were established, numerous exhibiting and performing opportunities for students initiated, the Creative Arts in the Public/Private Schools (CAPS) program began, and tens of thousands of students experienced and continue to reap the benefits of an innovative and interactive arts education program.

Lilly's commitment to arts as a part of the curriculum, rather than as an outside elective, is most evident in a program like CAPS, in which teachers can "order" artist residencies from a catalogue of options. These residencies--which incorporate everything from drumming to historical reenactment to poetry--are designed to fit into a teacher's curriculum, rather than supplement it. Children may learn to multiply by singing, or to understand a scientific concept through dance. "This is something most school systems do not have," Lilly explains, pointing to the collaboration between the schools and Durham Arts Council, which administrates CAPS.

She is also proud of the growing arts magnet schools. "One of the most exciting things I participated in was the creation of the School of the Arts," says Lilly.

Durham School of the Arts (DSA) is accomplishment worth noting. The downtown Durham facility contains a newly renovated dance space, piano lab, art classrooms, photography, guitar, and strings studios, the Black Box theater, an art gallery, a documentary photography exhibition area, a graphic design classroom and an 1800-seat auditorium. More than 1,000 students, grades six through 12, attend DSA. The open lottery process used to select students brings children from all over the city, creating a richly diverse environment.

Lilly's pleasure in discussing DSA is obvious. "When we were looking for teachers for the magnet center, we were looking for not only good teachers--but teachers who were interested in working cooperatively with each other, who believed in the value of the arts and were willing to do a lot of curriculum integration. And I think we got that."

Ed Forsyth, principal of the Durham School of the Arts, speaks passionately about Ronnie and her contributions. "Ronnie is such a force behind the scenes. She's subtle and gracious in her advocacy." Forsyth explains that Lilly played a crucial role in creating the philosophy for the school and in finding additional funding. "She's the one who kept saying, 'You can find the balance [between the arts and other academic subjects].'"

Lilly has served as the umbrella, the glue, the guardian angel, the bridge, or as she puts it, "the cushion" since the position of arts education coordinator was created. June 30 is her last day at Durham Public Schools.

Lilly sighs, "I'll miss the teachers and the students, the connections."

And her hopes for the future?

"I'd like to see the facilities keep pace with the times. I'd like to see more technology and more training in the arts programs in the schools, more equipment and more utilization by students. I want to see the arts and the arts teachers more integrated into the schools."

She worries about the teachers. "Situations have to improve--for all teachers. Not just salary, but the whole idea of them being supported in the community and in their jobs. It's a hard profession, but it's incredibly rewarding."

Lilly is not dispirited as her retirement nears. "I'm going to do all those things people say they're going to do when they retire: read (anything by Lee Smith--I identify with the mountain aesthetic), garden, organize my closets, travel, piddle. I'm going to spend time with my grandson and catch up with friends and family." Lilly will also continue to serve on the boards of Durham Public Education Network, Durham Arts Council, Brightleaf Music Workshop, and the Durham Symphony.

This soft-spoken, one-woman support system will remain visible and active in the community. After 35 years, her presence is expected. "I'm not going anywhere," she says, "This is home." EndBlock

  • Ronnie Lilly retires this month after 35 years as arts education coordinator for Durham Public Schools.


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