Ingram arts school principal retiring after more than 40 years as educator

Michael Thorsen will be leaving after 2013 graduation

January 27, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Barbara Ingram School for the Arts Principal Michael Thorsen talks with student Nathaniel Philp during the lunch shift.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Michael Thorsen slapped high-fives with some dance students as they returned from a performance last Wednesday afternoon at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

Earlier in the day, he chatted with students excited about the announcement for the cast of “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” this year’s major production for the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

This June, Thorsen will stand before the arts school’s fourth graduating class, the first with students who have attended the downtown Hagerstown arts school all four years of their high school career.

It will be the last Ingram graduation that Thorsen will attend as the school’s principal. He is retiring this summer after more than 40 years as an educator.

It is time to pass the torch, Thorsen said Tuesday while sitting in his office at the school.

“My family has sacrificed many, many hours of seeing me because of my career and I want to spend much more time with them,” he said.

Thorsen said what he will miss most is the arts school’s atmosphere.

“It’s just ... something special that you can’t duplicate in any other school,” he said.

Thorsen, 65, was hired in August 2008 to be the first principal for Washington County Public Schools’ first arts school, which opened in August 2009.

“Right from the start, we knew he was the right pick for the school,” said Rob Hovermale, the school system’s supervisor of visual and performing arts.

Thorsen had the right background and approach, Hovermale said.

“He approached things from a whole different angle than most principals would. Everything he approached, he approached creatively,” Hovermale said.

Thorsen’s passion for developing an arts school was evident immediately, said Cynthia Perini, immediate past president of the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts Foundation.

“Most people don’t really fully appreciate what it takes to get a new school up and running, especially one that is one of a kind,” Perini said.

Thorsen’s experience was a great asset, she said.

“Michael has the unique ability to have both the creative side, and some of the management and organizational skills that it takes to pull all that together,” Perini said.

Rob Smetzer, whose son, Ryan, is a senior and was one of the school’s original freshmen, called Thorsen “a gem, a gold nugget that was brought into the community.”

Thorsen knew what it took to run an arts school and was straightforward with parents, said Smetzer, who served as the first president of the school’s parent guild.

He told parents that their children would have to put in a lot of time and hard work, Smetzer said.

“He was right. That’s why the school is such a success that it is,” Smetzer said.

Out of retirement

Thorsen had retired from the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts when the Washington County opening became available, but he wasn’t ready for retirement, he said.

The Pittsburgh public school district was experiencing financial difficulties and cutbacks, so it had offered early-retirement incentives, he said.

“It wasn’t long before I realized I would drive myself crazy if I stayed in the house,” he said.

By doing consulting work and staying in touch with the Art Schools Network, Thorsen learned about the arts school planned in Hagerstown and the opening for a principal.

The job opening was “perfect” because the school was close to his family in Pittsburgh, Washington County Public Schools officials appeared to have done a good job researching the “most essential ingredients” of a good performing arts school, and a foundation was being established to support the arts school, Thorsen said.

“They really did all of their homework about how to get a school up and running,” Thorsen said. Elizabeth Morgan, who at the time was schools superintendent, had a study conducted about what the community wanted for the school system, and an arts school was one of the answers, he said.

“It was exciting to see a community embrace the concept. ... Most times, people just don’t get it. But if they really knew ... what we call the transforming power of the arts on kids, everybody would want their child to be in a school like this. It’s just a great atmosphere,” Thorsen said.

Students are admitted to the school based on auditions, regardless of their grade-point average, he said.

“Some kids have lots of talent, but less training. And so we want to make sure we don’t skip a kid who possibly has a lot of natural talent, but just hasn’t had ... a lot of opportunity for training,” Thorsen said.

The school offers only honors-level courses, he said.

“We believe that the very fact that the students have the arts as such ... (an) intense part of their curriculum, that it does very special things for their learning, and their ... process,” Thorsen said.

“You get accepted into the building because of your talent, but you must maintain your academic record in all of your subjects in order to stay. If you happen to fail a subject, you immediately get ... on probation and we begin to work with you to improve your issues,” he said.

Some students have been asked to leave because they couldn’t maintain their grades or decided on their own that the school wasn’t for them, he said.

“It’s not for everybody. ... You have to work hard,” Thorsen said.

Thorsen was realistic with students about the work needed for them to complete both their academic and artistic studies, said Sheridan Webb, a 2010 graduate who began attending the arts school during its first year.

“He didn’t beat around the bush, about the reality that you would have to work,” Webb said, noting the time management she learned at the arts school has helped her at Shepherd University, where she is studying psychology and Spanish, and is a singer in the acoustic folk newgrass duo Basswood.

While there were people in the community who supported the arts school, there also were some skeptics.

“It was a difficult year just because it was the first year and there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the school. I felt he put a lot of us to ease with that, and the teachers, too. He was on their side, too. He was on everybody’s side,” Webb said.

“I think there are always going to be folks out there who are skeptical of this type of program. I don’t know why that would be. I don’t know anybody that will tell you that they don’t value the arts. What would life be without it?” Thorsen said.

“I don’t think anybody would disagree with me that the arts are important,” Thorsen said. “There are still people who don’t believe that they should support it in school.”

“When, in fact, for 30 years, we’ve been proving over and over and over again that if you include the arts in ... child’s education, they are more successful, period,” he said.

Arts school growth

The arts school’s enrollment has grown each year since the school started with mostly underclassmen its inaugural year. Enrollment increased from 161 students that first year, in the fall of 2009, to 258 students last fall.

A literary arts program, which now has 22 students, was added for the 2011-12 school year, Thorsen said.

The other programs are dance, instrumental music, theater, visual arts and vocal music.

There are no plans to add more programs, said Thorsen, who noted that the school barely has enough room as it is.

The school’s home base is the former Henry’s Theater at 7 S. Potomac St., which was donated by local property owner Vincent Groh. The school is named in honor of Groh’s late wife, Barbara Ingram, a dancer who enjoyed drawing and taught art in Washington County’s middle schools.

Most academic classes are held at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown on West Washington Street. Students use The Maryland Theatre for dance classes and physical education. The Washington County Free Library serves as the school library. The school also recently started using space at Bridge of Life church, across Potomac Street, for a cafeteria after students had eaten their lunches in halls and classrooms the first few years.

The school is doing well in the area of academics and the arts, Thorsen said.

The school consistently has had high percentages of students successfully complete High School Assessment tests, assessment test data shows.

The performing arts school also has received various kinds of recognition, from awards, such as the New and Emerging School award from the International Network of Arts Schools, to invitations for students to perform at national and international events, Thorsen said.

Dance students recently performed at the Orange Bowl. Vocal students were invited to perform at Olympic events in London last year, but there was not enough time to raise the thousands of dollars needed for the trip, Thorsen said. One dancer received a scholarship so he could participate in the Joffrey Ballet summer program, he said.

The school has packed The Maryland Theatre for its annual musical productions, the last two of which were “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Thorsen estimated that about 7,000 people have seen the school’s annual musical productions at the theater.

He said he didn’t hesitate to approve the musical productions because of his experience with musical theater — conducting in the pit at CAPA and in semiprofessional theater, and knowing the capabilities of the teachers and students.

Ruth Ridenour, the school’s theater arts director, said Thorsen was nervous at times about whether the school could put on a show or make enough money to pay for expenses, but that he trusted the teachers and students.

As principal, Thorsen said, it was his job to be concerned about the budget, and early on, he didn’t know what to expect from the community in terms of support. A musical is an expensive production, with costs such as royalties, rights and salaries, he said. He estimated the cost of putting on “Phantom of the Opera” at about $75,000.

But each of the school’s annual musical productions has paid for itself, Thorsen said. The profits from those productions are split among the school’s departments to finance future endeavors, he said.

‘The pied piper’

Thorsen credits many people with getting the school started and for its success so far.

Among them are school foundation leaders such as Perini and Bill Alexander, business people like Don Bowman and Randy Thompson, and arts community members, including Elizabeth Schulze, musical director for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, and Mary Anne Burke, executive director of the Washington County Arts Council.

Thorsen is a visionary who knows how to make things work, understands the educational system and brings people together, Burke said in an email to The Herald-Mail.

“I think he will be terribly missed,” Burke said in a phone interview. He put the school on the map in Maryland and nationally, she said.

“I think that what he has done is brought this school to where it is today. It would not have developed without his leadership. There’s no way,” Ridenour said.

“He really put his heart and soul into it when he came to the county,” Ridenour said.

“He’s got us off to a good start. We’ll miss him,” said Alexander, president of the school’s foundation.

“I just have enjoyed the privilege of working with him for these five years. He has a knack for inspiring children to do the things that excite them,” Alexander said.

“You walk through the halls of Barbara Ingram School for the Arts and the kids are enthusiastic. They’re excited. They’ll talk to you. They’ll describe what they’re doing. They’re inspired. I sort of see him as the pied piper. He motivates and has academic standards they have to meet in addition to the artistic side,” Alexander said.

Webb, 20, said Thorsen often was out of his office, “involved in everything that he could be involved in.”

She said she remembers Thorsen going to the nearby University System of Maryland at Hagerstown to see how the academic classes were going.

Thorsen “made sure he had a relationship with each and every one of us,” Webb said. “It was great just because I felt like we had someone on the administrative side that was on our side as well.”

Ashley Warfield, who graduated from the arts school last spring, said Thorsen was “probably the best thing to happen to Barbara Ingram.”

“He cared about all the students. He went above and beyond his call of duty. He wasn’t the kind of principal who just stayed in his office all the time. He would come to every show, every rehearsal, and he was just on top of everything,” said Warfield, 18.

“If we ever had a problem, we could go to him,” said Warfield, who has stayed involved with the school. In addition to serving as assistant director for a one-act show at the school last fall, the education major observes Ridenour to earn her education observation hours.

Thorsen said his favorite part of the job has been “watching that student who has come in as a very shy, timid ninth-grader blossom into something very, very special as they graduate.”

“Being a principal of this kind of school is the best job an educator can have,” Thorsen said.

The future

Future challenges for the school are to continue the fundraising and excellence, Thorsen said.

The endowment for the school is about $600,000, with a goal of getting it to $5 million, Alexander said.

Interest from the endowment is used to pay for expenses the school cannot afford, such as bringing in a special instructor such as a choreographer, and paying for students to perform at state and regional competitions, as well as at other events, Alexander said.

“Unfortunately, the fundraising part of the foundation’s work was affected by the economy that went in the tank a little bit,” Thorsen said.

The arts school has received donations from the community, among the most recent a grand piano, Thorsen said. The anonymous donor contributed the piano in memory of his aunt, who was a composer and pianist.

Thorsen said school advocates also need to continue promoting the school.

“You constantly have to be re-educating the public to what we’re about. People forget. ... They think we’re just playing and dancing on tables,” Thorsen said.

As for Thorsen, he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family.

Thorsen said, for now, his family plans to stay in the community, to which they moved in 2008 from Pittsburgh so he could help get the arts school open for the 2009-10 school year.

He said he and his wife, Kathryn, a private instructor of piano, plan to travel, including a trip to Italy and a cruise from Germany down the Salzach River to Salzburg, Austria, where “all my famous musician friends are buried.”

Retirement also might provide him time to return to judging drum and bugle corps contests, he said.

“I don’t know if I ever really will retire,” Thorsen said.

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