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New leader promoting arts school awareness

Great things are happening on the Mississippi School of the Artscampus and new Executive Director Suzanne Hirsch wants thecommunity and the rest of the state to know about it.

Hirsch, who began her duties last month when she replacedlongtime director Dr. Vicki Lambert, updated Brookhaven KiwanisClub members on school activities and her vision for the futureduring a Wednesday club meeting. She touched on students’achievements and community involvement, building improvements andthe school’s future.

“We really want to promote the school to the community,” Hirschsaid.

To that end, Hirsch discussed efforts to get MSA studentsinvolved in the community and to invite members of the communityonto the campus for various performances and other functions.

Hirsch said MSA students are participating in a variety ofcommunity activities. She mentioned BARL, Habitat for Humanity, theOle Brook Festival and the possibility of some Christmas carolinglater this year.

“We are taking on as much as we can in the community,” Hirschsaid.

She is also interested in raising awareness of MSA statewide byhaving student performances across Mississippi. In addition, schoolofficials are working on the creation of an MSA alumni association,an economic impact study showing MSA effects on the area and thestate, and having students write letters to the legislatorsthanking them for their school support.

In the area of student success, Hirsch touted the $3.2 millionin scholarships that was offered to graduating MSA students lastyear. That surpassed the school’s annual budget, which is now $2.9million after a round of statewide budget cuts enacted earlier thisyear.

“We’ve far exceeded our budget in terms of scholarships offered… That’s extraordinary,” Hirsch said.

Budgetary factors could impact the school’s future in severalways, Hirsch indicated.

While MSA currently offers courses of study in dance, theatre,visual arts, vocal music and literary arts, which began in the2007-08 school year, Hirsch hopes to expand the school’s studydisciplines to seven by adding instrumental music and media arts.That, however, appears unlikely in the near future.

“With budgets being the way that are, I don’t think we’re goingto see that in the next year or two,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch was asked about the school’s existence in Brookhaven,including the possibility of MSA merging with the MississippiSchool of Math and Science. A legislative attempt to do that failedduring the 2009 session.

The MSA director said she was surprised that a feasibility studywas not done earlier this year when state lawmakers consideredrelocating the arts school to Columbus and merging it with MSMS.She said MSA was eyed to be housed in an old elementary school thatwould take millions to bring up to speed for arts school studentuse.

Hirsch said she is taking a “proactive” approach regarding thearts school and meeting with lawmakers and state officials aboutits future.

Hirsch discounted the possibility of an MSA-MSMS merger inBrookhaven. She said MSMS has 240 students and the MSA campus,which currently has only one Student Life Center dorm tower, couldnot accommodate them.

“Even with a second tower, we could not house them,” Hirschsaid.

Hirsch said 42 of the state’s 82 counties are currentlyrepresented among the MSA student body. The school enrolls about145 students annually, but can house up to 170 in the Student LifeCenter.

“We hope to have even more next year,” Hirsch said aboutrepresented counties at the school.

In other matters, the MSA director also hailed a 100 percentgraduation rate among MSA students. Officials are now collectingdata on alumni as far as how many are still in college or pursuingpost-graduate work or have finished college and are still in thearts field.

“We have students all over the country who are going out anddoing great things,” Hirsch said.

One student who has yet to graduate from MSA, but has alreadygained a level of national recognition, is Jasmine Murray. Thenow-senior competed in last season’s “American Idol” and made it tothe Top 13 of the popular singing competition.

Hirsch said another MSA student, whom she was not able toidentify because of show rules, auditioned in Chicago and wasselected to go to Hollywood but did not go further. It was notknown if or how much the student would be featured on showsegments, which are filmed and prepared prior to the seasonpremiere in early 2010.

To further help students, Hirsch said she wants to have anartist in residence program to have visiting artisans come and talkto classes. She expected it to be fall before that comes tofruition.

“That is something I’m very dedicated to doing,” said Hirsch,adding that having professionals – in every discipline – visit withstudents would reinforce what they are learning every day inclass.

In the area of buildings and other facilities, Hirsch saidLampton Auditorium was formally returned to the school last monthafter undergoing renovations for handicap accessibility and otherimprovements. It is now being used for classroom and performancespace.

Hirsch said work on Enochs Hall will be done in the spring tomake it a black box theater. And the director is optimistic aboutgetting a grant to improve the exterior of Elizabeth Cottage, alsoknown as the old president’s home.

“The (state) bureau of buildings has been our friend,” Hirschsaid. “They have been a tremendous advocate.”