Our Story

Opening Day, September 15, 1992

The Community School of the Arts in Knoxville, Tennessee, was founded in 1991 by a group of concerned citizens under the direction of Rev. G. Carswell Hughs of First Presbyterian Church who perceived a decided lack of art and music education available in public schools in Knox and surrounding counties. Incorporated as a separate nonprofit entity in 1992, the School was the first organization of its kind in the state of Tennessee to offer free, quality arts instruction to children and families who otherwise could not afford them. The after-school program was also designed to provide a safe and nurturing after-school environment, access to adult role models and mentors on an ongoing basis, and positive, self-affirming and confidence-building experiences.

Bolstered by leadership partnerships with the City of Knoxville Parks and Recreation Department, the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts (now National Guild for Community Arts Education), and the Knoxville Community Development Corporation (KCDC), the Community School of the Arts first opened its doors for full operation on September 15, 1992, under the direction of Executive Director Jennifer Willard. Twenty-two children between the ages of 7 and 12 made up the inaugural class; ten years later, 17 students from that initial group of 22 had graduated from the program as seniors in high school.

Brittany Rogers in 1992/Graduation Day 2010

Felix Taylor Harris in 1999/Senior Recital 2010

After only two years of operation, the School received full accreditation, making it one of only three such accredited institutions in the state of Tennessee, the other two being the Cadek Conservatory at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Rhodes School of Music at Rhodes College in Memphis. Today, course offerings include private lessons in piano, strings, brass, winds, and traditional instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle); string orchestra and percussion ensemble (a.k.a The Beat Addiction); and group classes in the visual arts, modern dance, drama, and creative writing. One hundred fifty-two (152) school-aged youngsters currently attend the Community School of the Arts on full scholarship determined solely by financial need.

Also at the core of our mission is the Side-By-Side Visual Arts Apprentice Program, established in 1997, which each year pairs students with professional artists in their studios to learn and master the techniques and the craft utilized by the mentors, providing students with life skills and strong role models that effectively reduce drop-out rates and provide a gateway to gainful employment. Side-By Side has been presented as a model to other programs across the country by the National Guild of Community Arts Education, was one of 35 finalists for the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, and has also mounted retrospective shows for the Dogwood Arts Festival and Blount Mansion.

Charles Myers in 1999/Culinary Degree 2007

Often programs are implemented or adjusted in order to address the critical issues or specific needs of our students. For example, in 1998, a severely depressed 9th grade boy, who was part of the inaugural class of 1992, told one of his teachers that the only activity he really enjoyed anymore was making biscuits for his family. Within 48 hours, the staff had recruited chef Bruce Bogartz, and the Culinary Arts Program of the ongoing Master Class was born. The class not only determined the career path of the young man in question but also of others in the program: Charles Myers, another member of the initial class of 1992, received his Associates Degree from the Culinary Institute of America (with scholarship assistance from the School’s Ray Hayworth Fund for Continuing Education), and is now Master Cook at Bradley Ogden at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Every summer Charles conducts Culinary Camps for our students in order to “give back” to the program that gave him his start in life.

Mural Commission for Knoxville Area Transit (KAT)
under direction of Sammie Nicely in 2003


Over the years, the Visual Arts Division has received a number of commissions for public art projects. In 1998, students designed and created a series of 15 textile weavings for the Knoxville Utilities Board's main conference room. In 2003, the Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) commissioned a major transportation-themed artwork, and under the direction of assemblage artist Sammie Nicely, students of all ages worked for 6 months to design, create, and assemble a 3-panel mural of hand-built clay tiles and found objects, which was installed outside the main entrance of the Knoxville City County Building. And in 2004, the Mayor's Office commissioned 30 individual canvas paintings as holiday banners for display in downtown Knoxville.

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam (center) declares Community School
of the Arts Day during KAT mural dedication on May 24, 2005.

Holiday banners for
the City of Knoxville, 2004

Among the many hallmarks of 19 years of performing arts programs are a collaborative performance of Stephen Paulus' "Hymnody of the Earth" featuring the CSA Children's Choir, under the direction of Karen Dhyanchand, in 2000; the CSA String Quartet performance of Schumann's Piano Quintet featuring soloist Carol Zinavage in 2002; the WDVX-FM Blue Plate Special live radio broadcast of an hour of music by guitar and mandolin students in 2007; the Modern Dance Ensemble's performances with Circle Modern Dance on the Bijou Theater stage in 2007; and the 2010 world premiere of "Goldie & Da Bearz," an original movie musical three years in the making by the drama and creative writing students of the "Word Up!" class.

Traditional Instruments Division is featured for the entire hour
of the WDVX-FM Blue Plate Special live broadcast, May 2007.

Original student movie musical
has its World Premiere, May 2010.

The Community School of the Arts received the Mayor’s Arts Award in the categories of Education and Special Projects in both 1995 and 1997. Executive Director Jennifer Willard and senior faculty member Carol Zinavage, who also serves the community as principal keyboardist with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, have both received the YWCA Tribute to Women award in the Arts category for their work with the Community School of the Arts.

The School is funded by both private and public sources, and receives significant and generous support from the Tennessee Arts Commission, East Tennessee Foundation, Bernau Family Foundation, Cornerstone Foundation of Knoxville, Haslam Family Foundation, First Presbyterian Church, St. John’s Endowment, Rotary Club of Knoxville, Frank and Virginia Rogers Foundation, Clayton Family Foundation, Home Federal Bank, Mount Rest Fund, and LAMP Foundation.