The series of concussions Reed Kelly suffered in high school hockey changed his future. No longer able to play contact sports or even ride a bike, Reed searched for a new passion. He discovered it as a dancer. He’s now a professional starring as Spiderman on Broadway in New York.

It’s a lesson his mother, Kathy Kelly, never forgot. It’s a part of the experience that superintendent Kelly draws from when setting priorities in Columbia Heights Schools.

Kelly puts extensive resources into arts, music and dance education. The small district of 3,000 students bordering Minneapolis has nine art teachers, eight music teachers and a dance teacher. In total, that’s 18 of its 224 full-time teachers.

It’s a striking allocation of resources for a district where about 79 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. But it’s one that Kelly passionately supports. She’s seen it change lives.

“We have our head in the academics and our hearts in the arts,” Kelly said. “Part of our mission is to provide worlds of opportunity for every learner. Not everyone is a cookie-cutter learner. We want to teach the whole child.”

Kelly said her students, many of whom face harsh economic realities, need an arts escape in their lives. “I sometimes think the more acute some of the situations for our students, the more they need both right-brain and left-brain kinds of skills,” Kelly said.

In the past five years, the district has restarted the elementary band program with the help of the VH1 music channel’s Save the Music Foundation, added digital arts, dance and other arts electives at the middle school levels and continued to build on its arts program. Every school in the district has a dedicated arts classroom and an art teacher.

District teachers have won three top state art educator awards and one national honor in the past five years. Kelly was also named Minnesota’s administrative art educator of the year for 2013, and she was VH1’s Save the Music administrator of the year in 2011. VH1 has provided $90,000 for instruments for the elementary school’s band programs.

Columbia Heights Schools’ emphasis on arts is also about exposing students to the vibrant Twin Cities arts scenes at their doorsteps, Kelly said.

“There is so much art culture and entertainment in the city, but they have no awareness of what is over there or what they could possibly be. It limits them and they are just right across the street from all of that opportunity,” Kelly said.

Artistry of teaching

Kelly said the arts program’s success is rooted in its teachers, who are artists themselves.

“You really have to commit to the full-time teaching positions and you have to commit through thick and thin,” Kelly said.

She compares her teachers to Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who took a hunk of marble and saw the sculpture within. “They look at our students and they see the creativity within. They pull it and support it to come out,” Kelly said. “That is really the artistry of teaching. It’s beyond the basics. … That’s what I call teaching to each.”

Columbia Heights arts teachers have racked up a bevy of awards in recent years.

• Highlands Elementary’s Joy Baleisis was named, along with another teacher, as 2013 Minnesota Elementary Level Art Educator of the Year.

• Columbia Academy’s Stephanie Nowak was named 2009 Minnesota Middle-Level Art Educator of the Year.

• Columbia Heights High School art teacher Diane Scully was named the 2010 National Secondary Art Educator of the Year and the 2009 Minnesota Art Educator of the Year.

Scully helped start the district’s elementary arts program 26 years ago and nurtured it through the decades, fending off budget cuts. She, along with other arts teachers, kept the program alive even as the district fell into statutory operating debt and needed to cut millions of dollars from the budget in the late 1990s.

“We had board members whose kids went through our schools. They were in our classroom and saw the benefits of our program in their own children,” Scully said.

The district also received outside grant money to establish a comprehensive arts planning program. Teachers and administrators met to figure out ways to further build on their programs.

“We spent two years really bringing our visual and performing arts teachers together,” said Mary Bussman, Columbia Heights Academy principal who chaired the arts planning committee.

“Our first meeting we said, ‘What else are we going to do?’ By the time that year ended, we were really dreaming. We had a school board and a superintendent we knew were going to advocate for us,” Bussman said.

Prestigious arts festival

The district’s annual arts festival was born out of that brainstorming.

Columbia Heights Schools host a K-12 arts show for two weeks each May at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony. It features more than 600 pieces of artwork. It is selective, with each school hosting a show and determining what artwork to display. It creates an event for the budding artists — akin to a game day for athletics — and something kids strive for all year.

“The kids come up and say, ‘Is this good enough to get into Silverwood?’ It’s a special thing for them. It’s something to shoot for,” Scully said. “It’s pulling that passion out of them and showing them what’s available to them.”

Scully said she understands the importance of early exposure to the arts. The daughter of a secretary and a Minneapolis police officer, she started drawing at age 2.

“Nobody in my family is in art, so who knows where that came from?” Scully said.

She studied art at Bemidji State and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Oregon.

Scully set up a discipline-based arts education system that focuses on students’ abilities to understand, appreciate and create art.

“It deals with aesthetics. It deals with criticism. It deals with production and history,” Scully said.

As children graduated from the elementary school programs, Scully helped establish middle and high school arts programs, building a sequential K-12 curriculum.

In elementary school, students start with the basics, including colors, contrast and texture.

“They don’t do hand turkeys,” Scully said.

Older elementary students study the elements and principles of design. They learn about abstract art, composition and other more complex theories, including expressing emotion with color.

At the middle-school level, students are required to take a semester of art each year but can also take additional electives, including painting and drawing, sculpture and media arts, which includes creating art with technology.

In high school, teens must take one fine arts credit to graduate but are offered a full complement of arts electives.

Scully teaches high school photography, Advanced Placement studio art, advanced drawing and painting, basic design, and beginning and advanced pottery.

Chrissy Wilda graduated from Columbia Heights in 2012. She is now majoring in art at St. Benedict’s College.

“Eleventh grade was when I decided I had to be an artist and I needed art to communicate,” said Wilda, who draws and paints and is a photographer. “It was the best way to communicate.”