We know that the arts are important in our schools and in society, but it is often hard to make sure that our student artists get the recognition they deserve for their work. This is especially true for our visual artists, who often aren’t present as a person admires a painting hung on a wall or a sculpture on display. Visual artists don’t hear the roar of the crowd as a point is scored like an athlete does. They don’t hear the applause of the audience as a performance ends like our thespians, dancers, and musicians do.

Wanting to bring recognition to visual artists, I worked with the fine arts faculty at Estrella Foothills High School (EFHS) in Goodyear, AZ, to establish the Principal’s Art Award. Eventually, with a baker’s dozen of art pieces collected, we opened the Principal’s Art Gallery.

Each year, we have a Fine Arts Festival at EFHS. Those in attendance are treated to a one-night variety show of live performances of theater, dance, and music showcasing the best student performances of that year. Audience members are then ushered to an incredible exhibit of artwork. The display’s grandeur is exhibited through the rich and comprehensive nature of the artwork itself. This exhibit shows all the best student artwork of the year, and for seniors, their best work throughout their high school careers. On that night, the seniors stay with their portfolio collections and enjoy the compliments and smiles from those admiring their work—many of them blushing, unused to this type of attention.

The day of the festival, I would sneak down to the art room early and linger longer than most that night, admiring and deliberating; trying to choose the right painting for the permanent art collection we build through the Principal’s Art Award. After the fine arts faculty and I had narrowed the selection to a few top contenders, I would turn the task over to the art teacher, Darleen Deal, to secure the selection.

For the Principal’s Art Award, the winner would be chosen by the single piece of art. We wanted pieces that, combined, would be a special collection that could remain at the school through time as a testament to the talented student artists and the quality art program we had. I had one unwavering stipulation of the winner—the student artist had to be willing to sell their piece.

Once the sale was secured, on Senior Awards Night the winning artist is honored along with other scholarship recipients during a formal ceremony and receives a certificate, a crisp $100 bill, and much-​deserved applause. After the ceremony, often people from the audience come to the stage to see the piece up close and take in the details as the winner has their picture taken with the winning artwork.

Over the years, the winning art pieces were displayed at various spots throughout campus while the fine arts faculty and I tried to choose the perfect location on campus for our permanent display. We wanted a place where students, staff, and community members would be able to enjoy the artwork. And we wanted a place secure enough that the artwork would not get damaged over time.

This year, as I was preparing to give out the lucky 13th Principal’s Art Award at EFHS, we chose the perfect spot on campus for the art gallery. In a newly constructed lobby between the media center and a staff development space that is used for large groups of students during the day (and by school and community organizations at night), our gallery would be able to be enjoyed by our whole school community.

On a Saturday morning in April, Deal and I met at a frame shop with our collection of student paintings. Shortly after, invitations to our gallery opening were sent to all former art award winners, their families, school faculty and staff, and other dignitaries. We used this opportunity to involve many students in the school—not just artists. Turning to our career and technical education programs on campus, the signage for our gallery was engraved in the engineering lab. Meanwhile, the culinary arts students planned the menu for our special night. For the artists who would attend, prints were made of their artwork, since we knew that they had left their masterpieces with us and they may not have had a print for their portfolios or homes.

A couple of days before graduation, we cut the ribbon on our gallery that was 13 years in the making. With current and former students, parents, and other community members in attendance, we once again honored each artist who was able to attend. We presented each artist with two prints of their painting and a mug that had a collage of the 13 paintings in the gallery up to that point. The mug allowed the artists to take the full collection home with them in a small way. We cut a ribbon to the gallery and toasted our award winners’ success with sparkling cider. Mayor Georgia Lord, who is a huge supporter of student artists, bypassed another community engagement to help us celebrate. We mingled with our alumni, hearing of their latest adventures and successes.

After serving for 13 years as the principal of EFHS, this night was the legacy I wanted to leave behind. It was a night to honor students who had given of their talent for the enjoyment of others. It was a night to honor faculty who came together and collaborated for the benefit of their students. It was a night to mingle with alumni and be reminded that high school is the preparation point for what is to come for them in life. And it was a night to celebrate the arts. My hope, moving forward, is that the gallery continues to grow with new Principal Art Award winners who share their talent with the school community for years to come.

Leslie A. Standerfer, EdD, is the assistant superintendent of academics for the Buckeye Union High School District in Buckeye, AZ.

Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Student-Centeredness

You can establish schoolwide systems to comprehensively recognize student accomplishments and efforts related to the values of the school. Some possible actions to celebrate and recognize students’ achievements and reinforce positive behavior:

  • Establish recognition systems to reward the behaviors and values that you want to reinforce.
  • Create multiple ways of recognizing the efforts of each student in the school community.
  • Find avenues to recognize and celebrate students’ efforts beyond the school building.

Student-centeredness is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.