The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Middle and high schoolers find success in new private arts school

With its first-ever trimester having just begun in August of this year, the Iowa Conservatory is in its infancy — but its students have already experienced growth within the tight-knit arts environment.
Isabella Tisdale
Students dance during a musical theater dance class at Iowa Conservatory on Nov. 28, 2023. Iowa Conservatory opened for its inaugural year this year with classes including dance, visual arts, and singing.

Before the Iowa Conservatory opened its doors in Iowa City for its first-ever day of school in August, the performing arts boarding school was built for a capacity of 325 eighth through 12th graders. In 2022, its founders anticipated a class size of 150.

When only a little over a dozen students applied, some worry set in that the inaugural class would be too small for the renovated historical North Linn Street location.

“[We were] scared for such few students,” said Leslie Nolte, a founder and head of the ICON. “Like, are we going to have groups that don’t like each other?”

Among the applicants, only seven were initially accepted into the conservatory for the 2023-24 school year.

Two more students were later accepted, and the nine families took a leap of faith and paid $35,000 in tuition for the school year.

“You have to remember, this time last year, [the ICON] was pretend,” Nolte said.

The ICON is a project over 10 years in the making. However, advertising a boarding school to families without a building to show or a residence hall to tour proved to be a difficult feat. Nolte said she and her administration underestimated how big of an obstacle that would be for parents already on the fence.

Yet, a place like the ICON could be key for nurturing young artists and performers who are largely used to the often talent-dimming monotony of traditional public schools.

Though she has a deep appreciation for public schools, Jessie Frerich, the director of admissions at the ICON, shared this sentiment.

“As a public school teacher for many years, we spent so much time telling kids to sit down, be quiet, and be still,” Frerich said. “What I know Iowa Conservatory is doing is saying stand up, move around, have an opinion, and back that up. Let’s be creative.”

Furthermore, the option of residence reaches beyond Iowa City kids who, Nolte says, are surrounded by an already vivacious local arts community.

Even for kids with access to afterschool intensive arts programs, trying to fit that on top of an eight-hour, five-days-a-week school schedule can be a challenge. The ICON’s curriculum combines the two into a daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Nolte empathizes with parents’ apprehension, though. As a mother who made the tough decision to send her then-14-year-old to a boarding school, Nolte reflected on this albeit scary change as one that ultimately benefited her child.

“That’s not to say it’s easy for families to give up young students,” Nolte said. “We all think as mothers that we get these kids until we’re 18, but that’s not what all kids need or want.”

For ninth-grader Caylor Hull, he and his family decided to transfer from an in-person public school in Preston, Iowa, to an online alternative that provided relief from bullying.

“I could just be me on the screen and still pay attention to school,” Hull said in regard to the online format.

However, after a while, a lack of a tangible artistic community at Hull’s online-based public school left him feeling out of place around people who didn’t understand him or his passion — tap dancing.

“The people at my school didn’t understand how much effort I put into my creativity and my art, and that just wasn’t what I wanted to stay around,” he said. “So, I decided to move to Iowa City.”

Now a dance major at the ICON, Hull has the space and time to fully embrace his passion.

He’s not just dancing; he and his eight classmates are fully immersed in disciplines outside of their major, with a course list that spans from study hall to music theory and introduction to directing, to name a few.

Currently, Hull’s favorite class is costume design, something he had never explored before transferring to the ICON.

“I’m singing, I’m playing piano, and I’m still doing school — science, math, and stuff like that. It’s just amazing,” Hull said.

Hull said he looks up to his instructors at the ICON: a cast of award-winning, master-degree-holding, Broadway-acquainted dancers, actors, musicians, and designers.

“Being around the staff, seeing what they’ve gone through to get to this school and what they get to do on a daily basis — what I now get to do on a daily basis,” Hull said, finishing his thought with a smile and a wide-eyed sigh.

Melia Bohn, an ICON post-senior, is a musical theatre major in the gap year program at the ICON.

Bohn went the traditional route for high school, but after graduating from Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, earlier this year, she decided to take a chance at the ICON before pursuing a four-year degree at a university.

The transition, she said, has been an adjustment.

“[Linn-Mar] has a lot more students than most schools, so coming to a school with only nine students, which is totally fine because we’re just beginning, is different,” Bohn said. “You’re with the same people all the time.”

Unlike some of the schools her other classmates came from, Linn-Mar had a great reputation for its arts program. Its show choir program in which Bohn was an alto is a household name in Linn County.

Though a change in pace, Bohn is thoroughly enjoying the benefits of a cohort of less than 10.

“You’re able to get a lot more help and attention when you need it,” Bohn said.

With fewer heads to count than they were expecting, the instructors are able to give more one-on-one time to each student, tailoring their curriculums to cater to their individual goals — something Frerich feels art schools don’t do enough of.

“There are so many performing arts boarding schools and high schools that really care about the product, like, ‘You come here and we’ll get you into Julliard,’” Frerich said. “That’s great, but you come to [the ICON] and you’ll leave a more well-rounded human.”

Despite this school year’s intimate class size, the ICON expects a swell in their student body come next August.

“I’m talking to 30 families right now, we have four to five applications sitting in the queue, and two more that have committed,” said Frerich “But [the students] have really benefited from having such an intimate setting.”

Beth Brown, the ICON’s director of curriculum and instruction, said she and the administration team are thrilled to see new faces next school year, but the once-worryingly small debut crew of nine has become something unique, special, and definitive of the school’s goal moving forward.

“What we hear from students all the time is ‘I found my people, I found my family,’” Frerich said. “I mean, ‘be seen, be valued, be heard’ is our mantra because we believe that every student should be seen, be valued, and be heard — not just a product of design or because they’re the best of the best.”

More to Discover
About the Contributors
Avi Lapchick, Arts Editor
Avi Lapchick is an arts editor at The Daily Iowan. A fourth-year student studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, she previously held the positions of staff photojournalist, summer arts editor, and assistant arts editor at the DI. She is happiest when she is writing or painting.
Isabella Tisdale, Photojournalist
Isabella Tisdale is a photojournalist for The Daily Iowan and is a senior at West High school. In her free time, she stage manages for the theater program at West High. She plans to double major in political science and journalism.