The Iowa Conversatory in Iowa City is the first fine arts school in the state

When Leslie Nolte’s daughter was 12 years old, she attended an audition in Chicago and with a tap on the shoulder was hired by the Houston Ballet. What started as a full scholarship to the summer program quickly turned into a year-round training opportunity, marking a remarkable ascent in the world of professional dance.

By age 15, Nolte’s daughter had moved to Houston on her own, separated from her family in Iowa City, all in pursuit of the specialized training vital to her success as a professional dancer.

This emotional experience inspired Nolte to create Iowa’s first private arts-focused conservatory school. The Iowa Conservatory of Music (ICON) opened eight weeks ago in Iowa City, welcoming its first class of 12 students who have chosen to major in dance, theater arts, music or visual arts/design.

Nolte is head of ICON, located at 123 N Linn Street. She also founded the local dance school, Nolte Academy, in Coralville. She had been developing the idea for a performing arts school since her daughter moved to Houston, noticing the need for a specialized arts curriculum in Iowa.

The newly established Iowa Conservatory is ushering in a groundbreaking high school experience for local students as well as children from across the country. Located in the heart of downtown Iowa City, ICON is a performing arts high school that prioritizes academic excellence and fosters a deep understanding and cultivation of the arts, positioning the curriculum at the intersection of creativity and education.

Nolte said the idea for the performing arts school also grew out of a desire to retain kids in the state, youth who are looking for a future in the industry but have no other options.

“[At Nolte Academy] what was happening is we were training these dancers and at about age 14, a lot of them felt like they had to leave iowa state to be competitive. One of them is my daughter,” Nolte said. “I remember when my daughter left thinking there is a way we can do this here. It may not be related to a professional ballet company, but there is a way to do this here in Iowa City.”

Nolte opened the James Theater last year, formerly the Riverside Theater at 213 N. Gilbert St. in Iowa City, as a community performing arts space. She uses it as a workshop for ICON students.

A new beginning in a legendary building

ICON is housed in the recently remodeled historic building, Union Brewery, founded in 1856 by German immigrants Anton Geiger and Simeon Hotz. Until 2019, it was the home of La’ James International College, which trained collegiate hairdressers. The end of the beauty school’s 40-year existence spurred Nolte to act, sticking to the building’s educational theme by preparing for a new wave of creative thinkers.

Nolte began working with Newman Munson about eight years ago to design the concept for ICON, then switched to an existing location in the heart of downtown Iowa City.

When the Union Brewery building became vacant in 2020, Nolte jumped at the chance by starting a major remodel.

“It was about a two-year rebuild, Nolte said. “It’s a building from 1856. So there was a beautiful surprise every time we walked into a wall.”

Innovative curriculum

ICON’s inaugural class is two months into a 10-year plan. The 12 students come from all over the United States, each with different majors, with some being fully enrolled and others following a half-day schedule. The number of classes is expected to increase to 45 to 65 students next year. ICON officials believe they will reach a maximum class capacity of 265 students in five years, much smaller than the average class size at a local public high school. ICON anticipates the current class will grow to 20 students in the second semester, with teachers planning curriculum changes to better meet student needs.

ICON students have already staged their first production in the first eight weeks of school, working with three professional actors who emphasized the importance of real-world experience before pursuing higher education or a career.

“We finally got to the point where we can be we can, it can be real practice instead of pretending,” Nolte said. “The ideas we had for the school were already put aside, because when you put real people in the room, ideas don’t always work. Textbook sentences don’t always work well when we’re dealing with real people and real kids. We must keep our promises. We all believe it and stand by what we say.

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A typical day at ICON

A typical day at ICON starts at 9 am, a later start time than middle schools, and runs until 5 pm. From 9:50 am to 11:20 am, students are in Zoom classes or private lessons. Students then disperse to classes in visual design or dance, with another two hours of standard academic courses later in the afternoon. Stage rehearsals are held from 7 to 10 p.m

“I would say the easiest way to describe it as just a general schedule would be in the morning, there are all these private intensives depending on what discipline you are, so if you’re musical theater you get a little vocal training, a little acting training, a little dance training, all those private lessons that can fit into these synchronous or asynchronous courses,” said Dr. Jesse Freeh, director of admissions at ICON. “Then they have lunch and the afternoon is project-based learning, and that’s also when our half-day [commuter] the students will join us around 1 p.m.’

ICON also partners with the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) to provide students with the core curriculum recognized as the best in the state by US News and World Report. Students work directly with personal training coaches to embody the typical assistance received in the classroom. Nolte and Frerich note that students in Iowa City are fortunate because ICCSD’s arts programs are strong. They have seen many students travel from other parts of Iowa and across the country in search of a better education in the arts.

ICON’s emphasis is on project-based learning designed to give students tasks and challenges they will encounter when they enter the workforce, whether they choose a career in the arts or not.

“The (ICON) schedule is built to be student-centered, so that students are completing their academic assignments and putting arts education first,” Nolte said. “We just want to be the space for those who want or, frankly, need us, which is why I just remind everyone that we have a partnership because we trust Academics Community School Districts in Iowa City.”

In addition to their general academics, ICON students require arts courses regardless of their major, such as piano lessons, to learn musicality.

“If we have dance students, they’re well versed in dance, they take a lot of dance classes, but we also require them to take a visual arts course to learn how to draw the body properly, then they also take dance kinesiology, so that they understand how the body moves,” Frerich said. “We are very particular about the cross-curricular design of the curriculum.”

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Training at ICON

About 35,000 students attend private boarding schools in the U.S. each year on campuses scattered across the country, but mainly on the East Coast, according to the Boarding Schools Association. Although there are other boarding schools in Iowa, ICON is the only one that emphasizes the arts. Students come from as far as New Jersey to go to ICON. Nolte and Frerich said some parents feel more comfortable sending their children to Iowa City than to a larger city, such as New York or Chicago.

ICON is aware of students who have left their families, aiming to help make the transition smooth by assigning a guidance counselor/residential assistant for every eight students. The senior helps students with everything from dating, grocery shopping and even cooking, a personal touch from Nolte’s daughter’s experience.

“We focus on the whole child because my daughter didn’t have that,” Nolte said. “These students had an artistic education, but no one supported them. When you find out your daughter is on day 17 and you’re eating cereal on day 17, you start to realize that nutrition is so important for mental and physical health and that it’s important not to feel alone.”

Mental health support is part of the ICON curriculum, ensuring basic needs are met while organizing student life commitments and events.

ICON also offers a “gap year” experience for students who need an extra year to prepare for college or their careers.

Tuition is $22,000 per year, $11,000 per semester for an ICON gap year, and $3,600 per trimester for ICON travelers. Out-of-state residents will pay an additional $7,635 in academic tuition for the Iowa City School District’s online program.

While ICON provides an innovative arts education, Nolte notes how the school will positively impact Iowa City’s local economy.

Emphasis on the arts for lasting success

Frich, an educator with 15 years of experience, started out as a Broadway musician in New York, doing eight shows a week before burning out. She played piano in a jazz club that often brought inner-city students to midtown Manhattan. Watching the children experience live music for the first time and touching the keys of the piano inspired Frerich.

“I thought I knew how to do, it was just a musician thing, a performer thing, but seeing their expressions light up when they hit the piano lit a fire for me in a way I hadn’t experienced before,” Frerich said. “So, I thought, ‘this is it. I’m going to be a music teacher.’

Freech’s experience as a public school teacher in Iowa City allowed her to see how the arts can positively impact a student, one of the reasons she moved to ICON. While Iowa City has a strong emphasis on the arts, Frerich believes that creativity and interdisciplinary arts education support not only cognitive growth, but also social skills.

“When we looked at the research data supporting the performing arts, visual arts and fine arts, it shows that all of these creative skills increase literacy outcomes,” Frerich said. “Statistics show that academic performance increases when students participate in the performing and visual arts.”

A recent study, The Impact of a High School Arts-Based Program on Academic Achievement, Creativity, and Creative Behavior, found that arts-based educational programs had a strong and positive impact on academic achievement; however, arts-based education at the public level has limitations that Frich often experiences.

“As a music teacher, I’ve spent so much time educating families, students, the community about the importance of education and it’s in, they’re all involved, but you’re also fighting against what the state mandates, what the country mandates,” said Frerich. “The gaps in public school education are made right here.”

Jessica Risch is the entertainment, restaurant and business reporter for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. She can be reached at [email protected].

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