MONROE – In 1912, a school named Benton Hill was established with only nine students and two teachers. Now home to more than 700 students and bearing a new name, Benton Heights Elementary School of the Arts is gearing up to celebrate its 100th birthday with three days of festivities.
The celebration takes place Sept. 27, 28 and 29, a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Thursday’s festivities will be primarily geared toward current students, while Friday and Saturday will be open to the general public.
For months, a planning committee has been hard at work preparing for the event. Frank Casstevens, a long-time Benton Heights teacher and chair of the planning committee, is excited about the opportunity the school has to show the public its rich history, recent successes and current opportunities for students to grow academically.
“I want to help our school realize that we’re at a milestone that should be celebrated,” Casstevens said. “I want the community to see there’s a sense of excitement and pride of what has gone on on this campus for 100 years, and for current students to take pride in that, as well.”
Thursday’s festivities begin with a grand parade. Each grade level has been assigned a decade, and the students will dress to represent that era. Following the parade will be a dance-off where the students will perform a dance from their assigned decade.
Other events include performances by the Lancaster Community Choir and the Monroe Middle step team, a bagged lunch on the school’s lawn and educational activities in every subject centered around the number 100. On Friday, a teacher workday, the public will get the chance to tour the school and hear about its history.
The major celebration takes place on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. and is in conjunction with the school’s annual fall carnival. The event will feature inflatable bounce houses, food vendors and tables and chairs for outdoor eating. At 10:50 a.m., sculptural metal artist Tom Resser will unveil and donate four sculptures created to celebrate the school’s 100th birthday.
That afternoon, community members can attend arts workshops, experience musical performances and sign cards to be placed in the school’s time capsule. Events at the school conclude at 3 p.m.
At 5:15 p.m., the festivities migrate to Wingate University’s Cuddy Arena for a celebration dinner. Refreshments will be served during the social time leading up to the meal. Reflections Band will provide dinner music.
Following the dinner, several speakers – including two recent Benton Heights alumni – will talk about the school’s significance and its 100 years of memories. Those attending are invited to mingle and dance on the gym floor. The evening will conclude with the permanent closing of the time capsule, which will be placed beneath the school’s auditorium, not to be opened for another 50 years.
Casstevens hopes community members will come out and experience the festivities and take part in celebrating the school’s 100 years of educating local students. “Our goal is to be able to come together as the community of Benton Heights and to realize all the great memories that she has,” he said. “The important thing for us is to … celebrate education in all forms and manners.”
To make a reservation for Saturday’s dinner, call the school at 704-296-3100. The cost is $15 per person.
Benton Heights: a rich history
Casstevens recently spoke with Union County Weekly to give insight into the history of Benton Heights.
The school was founded in 1912 under the name of Benton Hill. “It was very small in its day,” Casstevens said. “When it started, there were only nine students and two teachers. One of those two (teachers) was also the principal.”
Some years later, another building was constructed to expand the class sizes and the number of classes the school offered. The school remained a first- through 11th-grade institution until 1960 when students broke off to attend the nearby Walter Bickett school and the then new Monroe High School.
The school then became a K-3 establishment and adopted a year-round calendar in the early 1990s. “I believe we were the first school in the area to use the year-round calendar,” Casstevens said.
In 1993, Benton Heights officially became a county school when Union County did away with the city charter system. The school became a pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade school further into the decade, Casstevens said.
Benton Heights Elementary became a school of the arts in 2007, expanding its title to Benton Heights Elementary School of the Arts. Students participate in seven different arts-related classes each week – dance, music, drama, art, Spanish, computers and physical education. The school also partners with the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center to provide students with the opportunity to attend productions and further their education.
Each year, the school puts on four different major performances – a spring Broadway musical, a Latin festival in September, a Black History Month-related presentation in February and a student-led and -created drama and musical in the spring.
Any student in the county can choose to attend Benton Heights, provided they find their own transportation if they live out of the school district. “One of the unique parts of the school is that we’re a school of choice,” Casstevens said. “Every student on campus comes here by choice. We’re open to anyone. I think a huge majority of this county does not know that.”
In the past five years since Benton Heights became a school of the arts, the school has seen a significant change in the students’ academic performance. For the 2010-11 school year, Benton Heights showed the highest growth of all of the schools in the county – elementary and secondary – in terms of test scores. Casstevens attributes the success to stimulated learning the arts programs generate.
“We believe that that high growth is totally (related) to the arts, and that we’re looking at reaching multiple intelligences through so many arts,” Casstevens said. “We’ve met expected growth and high growths, which is a high expectation for a Title I school and (for) our population.”