Growing up in Florida, music was my outlet and the impetus for change in my life. I’m the product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and I credit the arts with engaging me in school and shaping me into the educator I am today.

As an African American male from a single-parent household, my upbringing was largely characterized by hardship. I experienced socioeconomic disadvantages such as living in poverty, having access to drugs, and witnessing gang violence. These factors play a significant role in adolescent outcomes, especially in academic settings. For me, the absence of a father presented another set of challenges, and I often felt the melancholy of being the only man in my immediate family. There’s a tremendous sense of loss in childhood without your father playing catch with you, going on trips with you, or cheering you on. Throughout the journey of life, music became my happy place.

As a kid, I loved all kinds of music, but especially classical music. I was first introduced to music at Parkway Middle School under the direction of Wayne Hoffman. This set me on a collision course with destiny that would redefine my existence and become the catalyst for my purpose. I later graduated from Miami Norland Senior High school, where I was a student of Kenneth R. Tolbert and Anthony E. Simons III. I eventually majored in music after being encouraged by Mr. Tolbert to cultivate the gift that God has given me to touch the lives of others.

In high school, I began to understand how I could pursue my love for music in college. In 1999, I enrolled at Florida A&M University and marched in the world-renowned Marching 100, the university’s marching band. After earning my Bachelor of Science in Music, I served in various positions: director of bands at Belle Vue Middle School in Tallahassee, FL; director of bands and PAVAC (Performing and Visual Arts Center) department chair at Miami Northwestern Senior High School; and director of bands at Barron Collier High School in Naples, FL, where I transformed the band program into one of the best in the country.

In various evaluations, the bands I was fortunate to lead routinely received superior ratings. In 2014, I became the only band director in the history of Collier County Public Schools to receive three consecutive superior ratings at the Florida Bandmasters Association State Concert Music Performance Assessment. Our bands also received superior ratings on the State Concert Band Assessment, and we won consecutive Otto J. Kraushaar Awards (given to band programs in the state that have earned straight superior ratings in a single year at all Florida Band Association events).

My students have performed at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, former Governor Rick Scott’s inaugural parade, the Super Bowl, at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Grand National Adjudicators Invitational. They have also performed for President Barack Obama. And they were invited to perform as a featured band at the prestigious Music for All National Festival (formerly Bands of America).

Throughout my career as a school leader and as a Florida A&M alum, I have upheld the values highlighted in the Marching 100 motto—character, leadership, service, and musicianship. My leadership and dedication to my students, faculty, and the community at large are informed by these values, and they have shaped my education philosophy that, not surprisingly, focuses on music and the arts:

Arts education is a vital right, not merely an option. It has always been—and will continue to be—an important element of education’s core truths and fabric. The ideals are intensified when they are combined with the concepts of inclusion and equity.

As a principal, I have led the charge for arts education ideals while also directing our Performing Arts department’s expansion and growth.

The Assignment

In 2019, I became principal of R. Frank Nims Middle School in Tallahassee, FL. The school had a checkered background of academic decline, behavioral issues, and a small arts department that included only band and dance when I first arrived.

In researching what we needed to do differently to strengthen student achievement, I realized that intensive blocks of reading and math classes were not the answer. They choked the life out of student learning and did nothing to boost student attendance. Given my own background, it was clear what our school needed: the arts. When I looked at my students, I saw myself. I remembered how music had helped me face my fears and give hope a chance, and I knew an arts program would do the same for my students.

After four years as principal of Nims, I credit the arts with the rebirth of our school and with engaging students in their learning and social-emotional development. Today, our arts curriculum offers band, dance, chorus, orchestra, theater, and visual art. As a school, we have developed ways to give our students engaging arts experiences by demonstrating the value and significance of integrating the arts within the academic curriculum.

At our school, access to the arts acts as the initial change catalyst. In many other schools, academically challenged students are often placed in intensive reading and math courses to assist academic acceleration. But because of the extensive time needed for students to attend such courses, they often miss out on nonacademic enrichment classes (like art classes) that are full of interesting and exciting activities. Since I did not see evidence to suggest that students who participate in intensive blocks of reading and math courses do better, I eliminated those courses from the curriculum and opened access to our elective programs, which include the arts.

This integration has clearly paid off. As a Title I school, we have sustained academic growth each year. We are now only seven points away from earning a “B” on the state report card, and our student enrollment has more than doubled from 230 to more than 600 students. We have also seen improvements in student behavior, with decreases in the number of office referrals and suspensions.

Each year, our school holds a “Block Party” performance in front of the school, which showcases the talents of our students to more than 700 members of the community. The party includes students in our band, dance, orchestra, choral, and arts classes. As principal, I take pride in seeing how both Nims and the entire Southside neighborhood have benefited from the school’s improved standards and myriad opportunities in arts education. The evening is a family celebration where students put on an hourlong production of entertainment, complete with food truck vendors and tons of fun.

An Award for Our Work

In May, as a testament to how far our school has come, I was honored with the 2022 Opening Nights Arts Advocate Award at Florida State University, presented by VyStar Credit Union. Because of this award, Nims Middle School will receive an arts education program day and performance presented by Opening Nights this school year. The objective for the Arts Day at FSU is to show students the arts opportunities available at the college level and how a college degree can help open doors for future economic opportunities, just as it did for me.

As part of this award, our students will take a campus tour, watch college student performances, eat lunch on campus, and enjoy a full-day college experience. One of the greatest honors of my life’s work was receiving the Opening Nights award. Being acknowledged is one thing, but having your entire school recognized is quite another.

Above all, I am grateful for the opportunity to observe our kids’ creativity blossom in our various arts programs. When I arrived at Nims, the choral program was nonexistent; it now has more than 150 students actively involved. Most of the work is completed by the teachers who our students have come to value and adore—teachers such as Kelsey Boyer, our dance instructor; Andrew Thompson, our choir director; and Khadija Hyde, our band and orchestra teacher. These are all educators who instill the same enthusiasm and appreciation for the arts that my teachers instilled in me years ago.

I’m confident that these teachers and the learning opportunities they provide will lead our youngsters toward fulfilling and productive destinies. In my work as a school leader, I am constantly reminded that we must meet children where they are if we are to truly have a positive influence on their lives. Ensuring they have access to enriching learning experiences is the first step. Only because someone gave me that type of access, am I here today.

My life’s mission is to open doors for our students by using the arts as a catalyst. It is my hope that our school enables students to look beyond their immediate circumstances and take advantage of the opportunities we offer to create a dream for themselves that will one day become a reality.

Benny L. Bolden, Jr., EdD, is the principal of R. Frank Nims Middle School in Tallahassee, FL, and an adjunct professor at Florida State University.