Michelle Burrows

Catching up with A+ Schools Of North Carolina

Author: North Carolina Arts Council

To celebrate Arts in Our Schools Month, we’re shining a spotlight on A+ Schools of North Carolina. Established in 1995 by the Kenan Institute for the Arts, A+ Schools is the longest-running arts-based whole-school transformation model in the nation. It all started with 25 schools training together to better understand how the arts could be central to teaching and learning in all subjects. The network of schools has expanded across the state and today serves more than 25,000 students annually.

We chatted with Michelle Burrows, who has been with A+ Schools from the start, first as a teacher and now as its program director, to get her take on the program’s evolution. 

How long have you been involved with A+ Schools of North Carolina?
 I started as a fourth-grade teacher at Bugg Elementary, one of the first A+ schools in North Carolina, in 1995, as the A+ Schools Program (as it was called then) was just getting started in the state. As a matter of fact, I met the staff of my new school for the first time at our A+ Schools 5-day Summer Institute at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro!

Michelle Burrows as a young teacher in the classroom
Michelle Burrows as a young teacher surrounded by her students
Michelle with her students at Bugg Elementary, an A+ school.


What was it like to be at the beginning of this whole-school transformation concept?
It was a very exciting time. Coming from teaching in California, I already had a strong interest in arts integration and collaborative learning. Being able to step into a school where this was the focus was like a dream come true. My fourth graders were eager to learn through the arts, and their self-confidence, understanding, and mastery of content demonstrated that this model was very successful.

Pretty quickly, I became engaged with the A+ Schools Program staff and was invited to become a part of its training faculty—what we now call the A+ Fellows. I wanted to shout about how important this program was and felt that helping other educators to develop this kind of passion for teaching the “A+ way” would be a wonderful way to have a broader impact.

How did your students react to “arts integration” in their other subjects? Does any one student stand out from your time as an A+ teacher?
My students, and really all the students in our school, flourished as we got better and better at integrating the arts into everything we did. Students made cross-curricular connections with ease, explored real-life applications, and were exposed to artists, musicians, dancers, and actors. They engaged in what we called “twenty-first century skills” that are now part of North Carolina’s Portrait of a Graduate model: adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, empathy, personal responsibility, and a learner’s mindset. These are skills that would help them as they continued through their education and out into the work world. 

I have so many stories of students for whom “regular” school wasn’t working. Then, they were exposed to the arts and to the idea of multiple intelligences and realized they were smart, they were talented, and they could try lots of different things and learn in many ways. Learning that way truly built the self-esteem and confidence of every student.

A+ Schools director Michelle Burrows with a couple young students
Michelle Burrows with students at an A+ shcool.


What changes have you seen in the A+ Schools model, both as a classroom teacher and now as the A+ Schools director?
Having been with A+ Schools for nearly 30 years, I’ve seen the model adapt as the educational landscape has shifted. The original “A+” in the name stood for “arts plus academics,” and while that is still our foundation, educational language has changed to include the arts AS academics. Our original mission of “schools that work for everyone” still holds true, and now that we are a signature program of the North Carolina Arts Council, our mission matches the N.C. Arts Council’s mission of “arts for all.”  We work hard to help educators across the state (and the nation) to understand the value of the arts in education and to find the best ways to provide an art-filled, relevant, and engaging experience to all of their students.

Extensive evaluation and research on the A+ Schools model have demonstrated its efficacy as a comprehensive educational transformation that endures over time and adapts to evolving trends in education. The remarkable longevity and sustainability of this model are nearly unprecedented in the field of education.

Having been with A+ for so long, I believe—and we have heard from our educators—that it is much more engaging, satisfying, meaningful, and frankly, fun to teach the “A+ way.” The way that we work with and train a whole school has impact. We don’t just train a group of teachers who are then tasked to go back and, in their copious amounts of free time, train the rest of the staff. We train the WHOLE staff. Everyone learns to speak the same common language, value the same foundational A+ Essentials, and collaborate to build the engaging, art-filled environment they all want at their school. 

I read a teacher’s reflection from a professional development session we held this month for a school that has been in the A+ Schools network since 1995. The teacher said, “I think I’ll stay at this school as long as I teach in public education. Not sure anywhere else will be able to match what we do here.”  I think that says it all.

As director of A+ Schools of North Carolina, how do you see the future of A+? 
It is a little hard to know where the shifts in education in North Carolina will take us, but I do know that we will be working to reach even more educators and schools here—continuing to grow not only the number of schools within the A+ Schools network, but also reaching out to educators who are not working in A+ schools. 

During the pandemic, we demonstrated adaptability and resilience as we generated a library of virtual tools and resources that have proven valuable to educators in A+ schools and will perhaps also be valuable to those not currently teaching in an A+ school. With generous and, I hope, recurring funding, support, and recognition from the General Assembly, we can continue to sustain and expand our reach across the state. Our thirtieth anniversary milestone next summer will be an excellent opportunity to not only celebrate our achievements but also to reflect on the evolving needs of our state’s educators and students.

A+ Schools of N.C. is well positioned to continue our transformative work in education. We have an amazing A+ staff of forward thinkers who read thousands of participant reflections every year to help us continue to strengthen our practice. As we respond to the evolving educational landscape, we are always seeking ways to do even better what we already do well. As a prior A+ staffer once said, “We are never in the land of the done.”  A+ Schools transforms schools, educators, and students across the state, and its future is bright.

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