Born of desperation and nurtured through an unsteady childhood, the Cab Calloway School of the Arts is now a respected adult in the world of Delaware public education – 25 years old and going strong.
But it wasn’t easy for the 940-student middle and high school, the first successful magnet school in Delaware, to mature and prosper. In its first year, and from time to time in its first decade, its future was in doubt.
In the early 1990s, the once respected Wilmington High School, tucked away in the southwest corner of the city at DuPont Road and Lancaster Avenue, was in a death spiral. The building, designed to house 1,700 students, had an enrollment of 250 or so. In those days, with northern New Castle County schools subject to a desegregation order issued by U.S. District Court in the late 1970s, students were assigned by specific attendance zones, and the Red Clay Consolidated School District was required to maintain a high school in the city. But the suburban areas assigned to Wilmington High included many families who strongly opposed the desegregation order. They expressed their opposition by moving their children to private and parochial schools.
“We had to assign a larger percentage of students from our other high schools [Dickinson, McKean and A.I. du Pont] each year to Wilmington to keep it viable,” and those changes in attendance zones were never popular, recalls Bill Manning, then president of the Red Clay Board of Education. “Then someone on the board said maybe we should let everyone choose” where they wanted to go to school.
By late 1991, the idea of a middle school for the creative and performing arts was percolating. A group of Red Clay administrators, board members and parents made a couple of trips to New York City, where they came away impressed from a visit to a successful middle school in Harlem. “I don’t remember the school’s name,” Manning said, “but we were in a regular classroom, and the kids were practicing for a musical, and their work was so good, so powerful, that tears ran from our eyes.” As they rode the train back home, they decided the idea was worth pursuing.
A committee was formed, planning began and, in September 1992, Red Clay’s Creative and Performing Arts Middle School opened in an otherwise empty wing of the Wilmington High building. There were 200 students, 100 each in grades six and seven.
“Some had a passion for the arts,” recalls Sally McBride, one of the parents on the organizing committee. “And some thought it was going to be a breeze, that all they had to do was sing and dance all day. And there were some schools that encouraged their students with ‘challenging behaviors’ to apply.”
Three weeks before the school opened, there weren’t any books, McBride says. Two months after opening, a library was started in an empty closet. Nobody thought we would make it, including – don’t quote me on this – me,” she says.
But the middle school would thrive, thanks in large part to an active board of directors that functioned much like a mini school board. And it didn’t hurt that one of the Red Clay residents recruited for the board was Cabella Calloway Langsam, daughter of the legendary jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, then a resident of the Cokesbury Village retirement community in Hockessin. Cab Calloway participated in the school’s ribbon-cutting in November 1992 and the school was named in his honor the following year. After Calloway’s death in 1994, his daughter and his wife, Nuffie, maintained an active interest in the school.
As the first middle school classes graduated, McBride says, parents pressed the Red Clay board of education to add a high school program.
Meanwhile, other changes were under way in the district. Other magnet programs set up in the Wilmington High building – the Phoenix Academy, which emphasized small group instruction and active learning experiences, and an Academy of Banking and Finance – struggled and were disbanded. A state law permitting creation of charter schools was passed, and Red Clay authorized creation of the Charter School of Wilmington, which opened in 1996 in the Wilmington High Building. Wilmington High would officially close in 1999.
Cab Calloway started its high school program in 1997, but it did not prosper as the middle school had. The academic program lacked rigor – there was English 1, English 2, English 3 and English 4, for example, but no honors or Advanced Placement offerings – and school leaders came and went.
In July 1999, Red Clay hired Julie Rumschlag, then an assistant principal at Christiana High School, as Cab Calloway’s new dean. She had hardly settled in when she was called into a meeting with Manning, Red Clay Superintendent Bob Andrejewski, and Judge Vincent Poppiti, the head of the school’s board of directors. The message they delivered was blunt and to the point: “You are being charged to create a successful high school program. You have to make it work or we’re going to close the high school.”
The message was daunting, but Rumschlag was undaunted. She began a curriculum revamp even though, she says, “if you’ve only got 29 seniors you can’t offer six Advanced Placement courses.”
Andrejewski, Manning says, “had a policy of studied non-interference,” which amounted to “give Julie what she needed and stay out of the way.”
In terms of Red Clay’s resources, that meant giving the school more teachers than it qualified for under the state’s unit count funding system. Meanwhile, the school’s board of directors morphed into a new organization, the Cab Calloway School Fund, which raises money to provide services, equipment and supplies not covered by the school’s budget.
“Red Clay was very supportive. They wanted us to succeed,” Rumschlag says.
As the school has grown, it has developed nine “majors,” which are essentially sequences of electives taken in addition to the state’s requirements for all high school students in math, science, English language arts and social studies. The majors are: dance, digital media and communication arts, instrumental music, piano, strings, technical theater, theater arts, visual arts and vocal music. Typically students will take two classes each semester in their major field – for example, an instrumental music course for their grade level plus symphonic band or concert band.
Sharing the building with the Charter School of Wilmington helps in other ways too. Cab Calloway students can take Charter classes, like some science and Advanced Placement offerings, if space is available, and Charter students may likewise enroll in Cab Calloway arts classes. Cab Calloway students participate on Charter’s athletic teams; Charter students may join Cab Calloway’s marching band, which performs at Charter’s football games.
Because of the school’s reputations for excellence in their core areas, “students at both schools inspire each other to work harder,” McBride says.
As a magnet school, Cab Calloway is allowed to require incoming students to have both an interest and a competency in its major subject areas. Students apply through the state’s choice program, but then must participate in “assessments,” essentially auditions, in two major areas. Students who complete the middle school program are not guaranteed a seat in the high school; they have to complete the assessment process a second time.
Students with a qualifying score on the assessments are then placed in a lottery. Typically, Rumschlag says, the school gets 1,000 to 1,100 applications a year, and 800 to 900 participate in the assessments, with about 145 students invited to enter sixth grade and 128 to enter ninth grade. Some candidates receive preferences, as permitted by state law, such as middle school students seeking to enter the high school and those with siblings already in the school. About 70 percent of the student body consists of Red Clay residents.
The school’s students and staff are passionate about their studies and their work.
“I’m able to learn stuff here that I wouldn’t be able to learn anywhere else,” says Timothy Bradford, a senior majoring in musical theater.
“We do a lot of interesting things, and Tim and I wrote a play together,” says Megan Allen, a senior whose brother Peter graduated from the school in 2015.
Among the interesting things Allen mentioned was a class in stage combat, which teacher James Mikijanic describes as “choreographed violence … how to create safe but realistic-looking violence on stage – with hand-to-hand combat, knives, rapiers and swords.”
Mikijanic, who also manages the school’s state-of-the-art theater, says “Cab is a place where the students who come here want to be here. That’s not always the case now in education.”
“The teachers work very hard behind the scenes to do what is best for the kids,” says Margaret Badger, who had three of her children graduate from Cab Calloway before she joined the staff as its piano teacher – one of two positions paid for by the Cab Calloway School Fund.
“When I joined the faculty, I found that the passion I saw as a parent is real,” she says. “Every teacher is extremely committed to their subject.”
Science teacher Dan Kafader, a 2003 graduate, is one of three alumni now on the faculty. He credits two of his teachers, Rich Hanel and Reese Rigby, with inspiring him to make education his career.
Cab Calloway is different from other places he has taught, and he attributes that to the passion of students, staff and parents. “We’re all passionate. I guess that’s it,” he says. “It translates into positive action in education.”
The passion is evident throughout the building. Old photos and paintings of Cab Calloway abound, serving as inspiration to the students, who just might be painting or singing in the hallways or playing one of the two pianos in the lobby.
“It’s not quite like ‘Fame,’” Mikijanic says, referring to the 1980 musical film and its 2009 remake, “but it’s close.”
Cab Calloway School of the Arts will begin its 25th anniversary celebration on Thursday, Sept. 28, with a reception and entertainment program featuring performances by the school’s students and alumni.
The event starts at 5 p.m. with a reception in the school’s lobby and art gallery, where works by Wilmington artist Marty Barnes are now on display.
The program, in addition to entertainment, will feature remarks by Sen. Chris Coons, whose daughter attends the school, and former Gov. Jack Markell and his wife Carla. Retired faculty member Joe Masiello, a former Delaware teacher of the year, will be the master of ceremonies.
Tickets are $10 at https://cabcalloway.ticketleap.com/