When the Show Must Go On: How a Prestigious Dallas Arts High School Saved its College Showcase during COVID-19 and Put Students and Recruiters Center Stage

student recruitment

The Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas has a reputation that precedes itself in several notable ways. 

Founded in 1922, this award-winning Arts Magnet and member of the Dallas Independent School District was Dallas’ first high school for African American students. Renamed for Black community leader and education pioneer Booker T. Washington, its roster boasts many famous former students, including platinum singer-songwriter Norah Jones, Chicago Cubs baseball legend Ernie Banks, trailblazing journalist Julia Scott Reed and international TV personality and dancer Kennedy Davenport. 

As the legendary actress and producer Glenn Close has described the school, “Booker T is on the world’s artistic map.” 

This nationally recognized secondary school is also known for its annual College Showcase. Running since 1985, with longtime mission-critical funding and volunteer support from the Junior League of Dallas, Showcase is a live November event spanning four days. Historically the BTWHSPVA has welcomed recruiters from over 100 nationwide colleges and universities each year to audition its seniors on the school’s Dallas campus.  

Recruiters observe student performances and exhibitions, hold interviews with prospects and make scholarship determinations and offers based on what they see and hear at Showcase. The event is also the pinnacle of the senior performance experience, in which graduating students finally get to share the fruits of their labor with their family and their student body, as well as college recruiters and teachers. 

“Right now, in my program of about 60 students, I have two from Booker T and they are two of my most valuable students. So this school is really important,” said Orion Duckstein, Chair of the Dance Department at Adelphi University in New York. Duckstein has attended the Showcase in person for the last seven years. 

Sharron Starling, Director of Admission at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and longtime recruiter at the event, confided, “At a school like Booker T, I’d say probably 99% of those students are admissible to our program.”  

This year, however, COVID-19 threatened to eliminate these audition and recruitment opportunities, because BTWHSPVA’s College Showcase wasn’t going to happen. Like so many other live events, it could not be held safely in person during the pandemic.

BTWHSPVA teachers and staff couldn’t imagine cancelling the event. Seniors had been painstakingly preparing for the last three years, and this was their one chance to meet and engage with college recruiters on their home turf.  

“We didn’t know if we were going to be able to have any version of this experience for the senior class of 2021,” said Kate Walker, BTWHSPVA’s Dance Conservatory Director.  

Then BTWHSPVA Dance Instructor Brian Devine recommended an online solution he had previously used for university admissions review, in hopes that the show could go on. 

It was SlideRoom, a platform for the streamlined submission, organization and review of art portfolios and recorded auditions. SlideRoom provides colleges and schools at every level with powerful tools for the submission and review of media and “anytime, anywhere” collaboration. 

Headquartered just 9.2 miles from BTWHSPVA’s current-day campus, SlideRoom had been a successful tool for Devine in his former role in Admissions for The Ohio State University’s Dance Department. 

“It was a repurposing of things,” said Michael Jacko, Music Conservatory Director at BTWHSPVA. “We knew that SlideRoom is great for submitting applications to colleges. But we hadn’t really explored it as a secure sort of review site for all of our visitors. As soon as Brian recommended SlideRoom, it became pretty clear that that was going to be a good option for our type of asynchronous showcase.” 

BTWHSPVA’s Principal Scott Rudes had some concerns initially about dramatically reformatting the beloved Showcase, especially given the timeframe and the various stakeholders’ goals and needs. “I know that all of us were nervous, because change can be frightening, but we had to adapt,” he said. “We often talk about being creative revolutionaries. I remember having that conversation with the whole Showcase team, saying ‘If we’re not creative revolutionaries now, I don’t know when we’re going to be!’”

The BTWHSPVA staff took Devine’s advice and took their Showcase virtual with SlideRoom. With less than two months before the event, they had their work cut out for them to be fully prepared for a first-time remote format, but they were thrilled to enable the show to go on. 

Rudes recounted how his extended team rallied, given their desire to provide this senior class with every experience and opportunity that BTWHSPVA seniors anticipate and earn. “Showcase is about a really, really polished experience. It’s the capstone experience of a student’s career here at Booker T. Being able to partner with SlideRoom so we could still make that happen for our kids this year was a really big deal.”

“In the short-term, SlideRoom really saved the day,” said Walker. 

student recruitment
Photo credit Ben Doan-Stevens

Recruiters Respond to Remote in Record Numbers 

As the Showcase event invitation replies were received, the BTWHS conservatory directors watched the recruiter headcount for the now-online event far exceed what they were ever able to achieve in person. In the end, over 500 recruiters attended to assess 316 student submissions.

 According to Walker, “What we saw as a trend for the Dance Department was that, where normally a school would send one faculty person or one admissions person to showcase, we actually granted access to their entire recruitment team.” 

“It was the same thing with Visual Arts,” said Kyle Clark, BTWHSPVA’s Visual Arts Conservatory Director. “It was a great way for those college reps to be able to be here. I was granting access to everyone on the recruiters’ teams. And they were getting to every student, so every student got an evaluation for the first time.” 

Guinea Bennett Price, BTWHSPVA alumna and Theater Conservatory Director, had similar observations. “We were absolutely able to see more schools than ever,” she said. She also called out the additional hurdles that certain types of schools face for their recruitment goals every year. “Historically Black Colleges aren’t able to come to us in person. They don’t have a budget for going out and recruiting like that.” 

The directors are always mindful of the logistical limitations of competing with other events when limited recruitment travel budgets force hard choices. “With Visual Arts, we have the National Portfolio Day event that happens right before Showcase,” Clark said. “A lot of times, a lot of the reps can’t come back to the region, because they’ve already been here for that.”

Some recruiter schools, now empowered to attend this year’s Showcase remotely, joined in for the first time in years with a very positive response. 

“They were just kind of blown away,” Clark shared. “They all said, we need to make sure that we’re back here at this event, every year. So there was a lot of positive feedback about having that time to really go back in, and to be able to take a second look at Showcase exhibitors because of SlideRoom.” 

The BTWHSPVA staff saw numerous other benefits to going virtual — for the students as well as the recruiters — and becoming SlideRoom-enabled. 

“I was able to look at what the kids were submitting. And what that means is that more kids were able to receive acceptances and scholarships were offered in a much quicker, timelier manner,” said Walker. 

Jacko was pleased to continue the tradition of documenting the concerts and the student recitalists using SlideRoom, but found additional value in what was then possible: “We prepare those videos for the students, and then the students usually upload them to college auditions or what have you. But what we can do now is set up student and reviewer SlideRoom accounts after Showcase. And I think the greatest benefit to that would be for the college representatives who are not at Showcase. They can still ‘visit’ — just like they would have this year.” 

student recruitment
BTW theater – credit Vonda Klimaszewski

A Mission and a Vision that Align with a Tech-Enhanced Approach to Performance and Exhibition 

BTWHSPVA is committed to keeping its mission and visions statements real and top-of-mind, and to that end its leadership refreshed the language in both statements several years ago. Teachers and staff, including the conservatory directors, know these guiding principles by heart. They strive to put them into practice daily, posting them around the school and even starting each meeting by reciting them.

The BTWHSPVA Mission Statement reads: “As Dallas’ revolutionary high school for 21st Century scholar artists, we provide intensive, integrated training to build a bridge to the postsecondary and professional world.” 

Its Vision Statement reads: “We are an intersection of innovation and creation. We are a home to the young artists and thinkers who will write the next chapter of our society.” 

During times of upheaval, though, such ideals can easily fall by the wayside as more basic priorities for institutional survival necessarily come to the fore. It would be fair to wonder if BTWHSPVA, committed as it may be, has had to reprioritize this year. Has the school still been able to maintain focus on its guiding principles during COVID-19, and for its all-important Showcase experience? 

Principal Rudes is confident that the school’s mission and vision are more important than ever this year. “The biggest part of the mission is building a bridge to the post-secondary and professional world, and that’s huge for us,” he said. “That’s the reason why we do College Showcase. The fact that the SlideRoom platform is being used by colleges and universities, and that we’ve been able to use it to connect with over 500 recruiters this year instead of the customary 100, is a testament to that bridge.”

Price believes that BTWHSPVA has kept its mission and vision active vis-a-vis its newfound ability to level the playing field for all Showcase stakeholders: “This year our recruiters had an opportunity to go through and see every single kid in their own time. And, to me, that is creating equity in a different way, and I would like us to be able to keep that, because it enhances our Showcase experience,” she said.

Sharon Cornell, Public Relations/Magnet Coordinator and College Showcase Coordinator, likewise feels that the school has been able to protect and act on its mission and vision statements while also protecting its students and its Showcase during the pandemic. She also believes that the positive effects of recalibrating have only just begun: “With SlideRoom, our students will be able to showcase those talents throughout the school year, so those college reps that are not able to come in person can still have contact. To me, SlideRoom really takes our Showcase to another level.”

Jacko, too, echoes his colleagues’ sentiments. “To serve our students, it starts right with 21st Century: this point where we can’t do this the way we’ve done it before, so we have to think differently. And we did.” 

student recruitment
Photo credit Vonda Klimaszewski

The Recruiter’s Perspective 

For Showcase recruiters like Adelphi’s Duckstein and Cornish’s Starling, the first-ever virtual incarnation of BTWHSPVA’s Showcase was very different but delivered considerable upside. 

“I think this is one of those silver linings,” said Starling, who sees great alignment between Cornish, founded in 1914, and BTWHSPVA because both schools offer visual and performing arts programs. “The virtual Showcase provided more visibility, more opportunity for the students to be seen by more schools. It allowed all eight of our departments to participate. When it was in person, we could never afford to send everybody to Dallas at the same time.” 

Duckstein, whose dance program at Adelphi was founded in 1938 by modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, was quick to mention that the reality of in-person auditions can bring its own recruitment challenges: “SlideRoom made it very easy to narrow down the specific students who are looking for us. This can be challenging at a busy live event.” 

The consistently high level of BTWHSPVA’s applicant pool is a strategic consideration for smaller schools’ specific recruitment goals and approach. “AT BTW, where I might not even have to see the work to admit their applicants, it’s about me getting my college the opportunity to really recruit all of these high-caliber students…not just the ones that raise their hand to us,” Starling said.

While he missed the energy of the usual live event, Duckstein found dramatic efficiencies for BTWHSPVA auditions this year. “For what we’re dealing with now, the SlideRoom format made it really easy for us to study and evaluate all the candidates,” he said. “I think the initial connection — having taught the master class, having been able to go through and evaluate the kids quickly — was fantastic,” he continued. “It was less exhausting than a usual three-day trip there.” 

Duckstein was also impressed with both organizations’ abilities to work together for a high-quality final product. “The showcase was so well organized, and I think that’s a testament — obviously to the people at Booker T, but also the fact that Slideroom could adapt to the very, very specific needs of the Showcase,” he said.

Starling appreciated how SlideRoom enabled Cornish to improve its capabilities for assessment and ultimately recruitment. “We had all the student data in one location, so I was downloading all the spreadsheets. I downloaded all the portfolios and the auditions and loaded them into our Student Information System. I was then able to message those students not just once, but rather by reaching out to them and encouraging them through the application process to consider our programs. Before SlideRoom, I would have to rely on the student coming to my table and filling out a card. And I couldn’t go find that student. SlideRoom has let me find that student,” she noted. 

While the overall consensus of interviewees was that a hybrid model might be the ideal format for future BTWHSPVA College Showcases, it’s clear that some recruiters find the purely virtual model to be more inclusive, more budget-friendly and ultimately more feasible for achieving recruitment goals. 

“Hybrid is great, but we would still have to pick and choose who we could send to the campus,” Starling said. She found the benefits of a SlideRoom Showcase format so substantive that she’s sold on switching over completely, if and when the school were to do that.

“It was fantastic – we would love to have Booker T host it in this format again. Using SlideRoom, we had access to prospects that we’d never had before,” she said. “I hope that SlideRoom does not go away for this event. It really helps tiny schools like Cornish, as long as you’re willing to do the outreach.” 

student recruitment
BTW school facade – credit Ben Doan-Stevens

Looking Ahead to a Hybrid Future

As BTWHSPVA’s Price put it, “I think SlideRoom created an opportunity for us to be doing some things we should already have been doing.” 

Cornell, who was instrumental in the project as Showcase Coordinator and worked closely with SlideRoom on the quick-turn implementation, agrees. “One of the really, really big takeaways from this — even if we go back to in-person — is that we want to keep using SlideRoom.” 

Principal Scott Rudes is fully onboard after what he’s witnessed: ““In the end, SlideRoom was an exceptional tool for us to be able to adapt and pivot. It just exceeded my expectations completely,” he said.

“I definitely see us continuing the use of the SlideRoom platform and bringing back the live elements that we have — a hybrid of the two. It expands our palette and gives us some additional colors to paint with. And I think it’s going to pay huge dividends for our kids,” he said.

This is good news indeed for everybody who prepares and waits in anticipation for the next Booker T High School for the Performing and Visual Arts College Showcase. Many recruiters undoubtedly still hope to be there again in person, perhaps more so next year than ever when the world reopens. Even if they can’t, they’ll now have powerful new assessment tools at their disposal with BTWHSPVA calling SlideRoom back for an encore. 

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