The Arts Based School and Happy Hill: A Story of Arts, Innovation and Miscommunication 

By Bella Ortley-Guthrie and Aine Pierre

The Arts Based School still looks to expand into a new location after community backlash earlier this fall stopped a plan to buy nine acres in the Happy Hill neighborhood. The backlash has also led the school to work towards developing a closer relationship with Happy Hill through such efforts as after-school programs.

As presented to the City Council Finance Committee in mid-September, the school’s plan was to purchase the nine-acre plot from the city for $1. According to Principal and Charter Director Robin Hollis, the school was in contact with Councilmember Annette Scippio about the deal. 

The deal, however, put Scippio’s stated focus on education in conflict with the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association’s desire to develop the neighborhood’s land for housing. Members of the association and supporters of Happy Hill packed a Sept. 19 city council meeting voicing their dissent to the deal.

“I was told that this land was promised, 20 years ago, to be used for the Black community’s need [for] affordable housing,” local activist Yvette Boulware wrote in a Sept. 19 Twitter post. “Winston-Salem’s current mayor was, also, mayor 20 years ago, when this *promise* was made. Now, he’s attempting to break this promise he made and sell the land!”

Following the backlash, the city postponed action on the sale. A few days later, the Arts Based School withdrew its proposal. 

After withdrawing from the proposed land deal, The Arts Based School is working on increasing its diversity and inclusion efforts and repairing its trust with the community through its lottery system and communication and marketing efforts.

Councilwoman Anette Scippio (right, in red) responds to questions and concerns from Happy Hill residents at a Sept. 28 community meeting. (Aine Pierre/ Heard It Here)

From Land Sale to Land Trust

The Arts Based School opened in 2001 and moved to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive downtown in 2013. Its desire for expansion comes from wanting to decrease its waiting list, which stood at 400 earlier this year, according to Hollis. Conversations around expanding, Hollis said, started in 2017. 

During this time, Hollis and other principals routinely met with Councilwoman Anette Scippio (D-East Ward) for “visioning sessions” related to the expansion of after-school programs. The Arts Based School’s dance studio and theater were of particular interest because they were not facilities that were present in a typical school, Hollis said. She also said that opening up the space for extracurricular activities would be a tangible way to give back to the Winston-Salem community.

The school began a pilot expansion earlier this year by renting classrooms in the former Diggs Elementary School, near Happy Hill, for K-1 classes. Hollis said that Scippio then floated the idea of selling the school a nine-acre tract of city-owned land directly next to the former school. At the time of publication, Scippio did not respond to Heard It Here’s multiple requests for an interview. 

The school enrolled its first group of K-1 students in the old Diggs building in August 2022. The following month, the school presented its proposal to the city’s Finance Committee to buy the nine acres for $1 for a second K-8 campus. 

Committee members raised questions about diversity and asked the school to return later in the month. By then, members of the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association and the social justice organization, Housing Justice Now, heard about the land deal. According to residents, the city had promised in 2002 to build 425 affordable housing units in Happy Hill — to date, only six have been built. Happy Hill residents also said they felt excluded from discussions about the land.

“There are conversations going on about Happy Hill on college campuses and other places, but representatives of Happy Hill aren’t in the room,” Tonya Shephard, a member of the neighborhood association, said at a Sept. 28 community meeting.

After the backlash, Scippio, who serves on the Finance Committee, proposed tabling the measure and holding a community meeting one week later, on Sept. 28, to allow community members to discuss and voice concerns surrounding the proposed land sale. On Sept. 23, The Arts Based School withdrew its proposal, stating its support for the neighborhood association’s plan to develop a community land trust and develop the land with the community in charge.

“The Arts Based School stands in unity with the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association’s plans to develop more affordable housing units for families,” The Arts Based School wrote in a statement announcing its withdrawal of interest. “We, the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association and The Arts Based School share the same core values: engaging community, creating strong relationships, and seeing people first.”

On Sept. 28, the community meeting at the William C. Sims Recreation Center in Happy Hill went ahead as scheduled. According to event organizers, roughly 81 people attended, packing the rows of folding chairs set up on the basketball court. Scippio, who attended Diggs Elementary School, spoke about the history of Happy Hill and the importance she places on education. 

“Education is…one of the roads out of poverty,” Scippio told attendees. “Our children are not getting the quality of education that I believe they need.”

  By and large, though, attendees seemed unimpressed. During the question-and-answer portion of the event, many excoriated Scippio and the city for not including them in conversations surrounding the land. Aboie Harris, president of Happy Hill Neighborhood Association, spoke about the city’s April 2021 resolution advocating for reparations for the Black community.

We the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association demand that the city of Winston Salem make good on its promises regarding reparations, as the city council stated in April of 2021, Harris said. The resolution Harris mentioned, however, did not include any concrete promises for the city to pay reparations to its Black residents.

Residents also expressed their desire to create a community land trust to grow generational wealth.

 “Community land trusts allow for communities to control land and development,” Harris said. “The heart of a community land trust is the creation of homes that remain permanently affordable and provide ownership opportunities for generations of lower income families.”

Scippio pushed back on the idea of a community land trust built from city land, noting zoning restrictions and other caveats. After the meeting, some attendees took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with Scippio’s handling of the meeting.

“We are disgusted with [Scippio’s] lack of respect for the people she was elected to serve,” Housing Justice Now tweeted. “Her comments to [the neighborhood association] were condescending at best and bullying at worst.”

A faculty art exhibit hangs on the walls of The Arts Based School’s Diggs campus. (Aine Pierre/Heard it Here)

What is The Arts Based School, and What’s Next? 

The Arts Based School is a public charter school that differentiates itself with a curriculum built around dance, art, music, and theater and positive discipline. 

 In an effort to increase the diversity in its student population, The Arts Based School received state approval in 2020 to establish a weighted lottery system into their admissions process, a system based on economic status and income. Under the lottery statute, there is “a 2:1 preference to students who qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch, according to those federally established guidelines.” The school completed its first weighted lottery in February 2022. 

“​​​​Our goal with that (the lottery system) was to bring our percentages up to Forsyth County percentages of the poverty line, so that we could mirror the community,” said Hollis.

Hollis said that the downtown campus serves 21 different zip codes while the South K-1 Campus in Happy Hill serves 16 zip codes. 

However, even with the newly calibrated lottery system, the school is not as diverse as it would like to be, Hollis said. According to The Arts Based School’s Demographic Informational proposal given to the City Council in September, 17% of its students are Black or African American, with 7% Hispanic/Latino, and 68% of the students are white. The document also stated that: “For the 2022-23 school year, of 15 new hires, 53% are Black and African-American, 27% are white, 13% are Hispanic/Latino, and 7% are multi-racial.”

“To increase diversity on staff and on our board has been a goal of ours. And we’ve started to make real headway into that … not only having more people of color represented in all of the adults in the school and space, but also creating a culture and an environment that feels like a place for everyone, that people of color want to work here, feel supported, feel to have what they need,” said Hollis.

Hollis said that she is working with the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association about how to repair the school’s relationship with the community. One step that both The Arts Based School and Happy Hill Neighborhood Association are considering is to make space and classrooms in the school available for after-school programs. Another step is working with Happy Hill Neighborhood Association to create marketing materials for families to learn more about the application and lottery. 

 “What we asked was that we get the chance if they are interested in providing something for them- to be a part of the community in a positive way… Really, just to hear what it is that they would like, in the partnership, as opposed to us saying, here’s what we’re gonna give you,” said Hollis.

Hollis said she’s unsure where the school will expand but school officials have learned from the experience in Happy Hill that wherever they look, they will need to work more closely with the neighborhood.  

“My regret is the sadness and disappointment that it created- the feelings that had people who for a long time thought the Art Based School was a really great place then they thought, ‘Oh, maybe they’re not. Maybe I can’t trust them.. maybe they’re just like everywhere else or something like that.” So it’s a lot to repair and you only did that each action you take to try to do better,’” said Hollis. 

Author: Bella Ortley-Guthrie