Principal describes birth of magnet school

Southern Delaware School of the Arts (SDSA) Principal Tim Fannin recently announced he would retire at the end of the school year.
When he leaves for Florida, it will mark the end of an era at SDSA. He was there at the very beginning, when the Indian River School District first floated the idea.
It’s been seven years since the Indian River School District asked Sussex families if they’d be interested in a countywide magnet school, strong on academics, but with a special concentration on the arts.

Superintendent Lois Hobbs pushed for a feasibility study in 1996. District personnel and a group of interested parents investigated similar schools around the country, went to workshops, drew up a plan and mailed out a survey.

“Initially, there were over 700 positive responses,” Fannin recalled.

He said he hadn’t been particularly surprised.

“We filled a niche,” Fannin said. “Not that there isn’t culture down here — we just helped provide a venue for the arts.”

Fannin had the background.

“I was an art major for a few years before I switched to education, so I had been involved in theatre, design and singing,” he said.

However, that probably didn’t fully prepare him for the fledgling SDSA.

“It was challenging,” Fannin admitted. “The building had been empty for a couple years, and we had to do the layout, hire the staff, set up the bus system to get the kids here.

“There was a great amount of work to do,” he said. “We gathered a lot of input from teachers and parents, and we spent that summer doing a lot of scraping and painting and finding desks and materials.”

The first year, they had two sections apiece for grades one through six, plus one seventh grade and one eighth grade.

“The next year we added another seventh grade and the year after that we added another eighth grade, and we’ve been that way ever since,” Fannin said. “Maxed out at 370 students.”

Returning students and their siblings get first dibs, and parents who apply early. After that, children within the district get preferential treatment and finally, children outside the district who are home- or private-schooled.

“We try to build the foundation in the younger grades and we introduce them to dance, drama, etc., then in the fifth and sixth grade they get to explore and concentrate a little more in their area of interest,” Fannin said.

“In the seventh and eighth grade, the students will have an art major and/or minor,” he said. “Their art major they’ll have three times a week and their minor they’ll have two times a week.”

SDSA instituted auditions for children coming into the sixth, seventh and eighth grades a couple years ago, to demonstrate at least an interest, and some aptitude, according to Fannin.

“We send them the criteria ahead of time and they pick a date and come in for an audition,” he said. “We’ve never really been looking to have the prima ballerinas or the superstars — we just really like to have the families and students who are interested in the arts and have appreciation for the arts.”

Where will the students go after SDSA?

He expected some would consider Sussex Central High School — they are developing a similar focus, with an entire wing dedicated to the arts. “They were looking to kind of be an expansion of this,” he said.

“Each of the high schools has their own strengths and weaknesses — families just do a lot of investigating,” Fannin said.

“We don’t have a sport program here,” he pointed out. “We have an excellent gym, and a lot of community groups do use the gym.” (Indian River High School athletes run practices at SDSA, for instance.)

With our teachers concentrating on the arts and academics, it would just pull too far from the programs we already have in place,” he said. “Besides, with the small student population, we’d only have 50 eighth graders total, so we’d worry about the equity issue.

In addition, Fannin said it would be difficult to coordinate sports with SDSA’s other after-school theatre and band activities.

“A lot of the kids here, their needs for sports are met in the community — little league, soccer, Pop Warner football,” he added.

The teachers do use the gym, and we have a large field out back, so the teachers do, as often as they can, take the kids out there and have games, plus they get their physical exercise through dance classes, which are physically demanding.

Fannin’s children (Jessica, J.T. and Tim) went to Sussex Central High School, but all three live in Tampa, Fla. these days.

Originally from Ohio, Fannin grew up in Columbus and later moved to Newark.

He attended the Ohio State University, and started teaching (grades two through six) directly after college.

He’d married Connie two years earlier, in 1972.

They started a family together and have three children — Jessica, J.T. and Tim.

“I taught in a country school initially, but then I accepted a job offer closer to home, and in the same district where I graduated from high school,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, their enrollment was dropping severely, so I was laid off.”

He took a job driving a bread truck and worked at that job for four years, while his wife raised their young children.

“The children were all school age by that time, so Connie started teaching again, and so did I,” Fannin said.

They had moved to Wellsville, in eastern Ohio, but once again, things didn’t work out as planned.

“Unfortunately, that being the steel mill area at the time, after two years I was whiffed again,” he pointed out. “That’s how we came to Delaware, quite frankly.”

The Fannins interviewed with the Indian River School District, in 1987, and the district hired both of them.

“They said the enrollment here was growing, rather than slowing,” he said. “We’ve been working for the district ever since, so they were right.”

His wife started out at East Millsboro Elementary and went on to become a science specialist, teaching district teachers.

Fannin started out at Georgetown Elementary, moving around the district until he landed at Lord Baltimore. He was assistant principal there from 1997-1998, and simultaneously principal for SDSA as they approached opening day.

During the intervening years, his own children graduated from Sussex Central High School, and moved down to Florida.

Fannin said he and his wife planned to move closer to the family — and he’d received a job offer from Florida College that would help him do that.

He expressed his gratitude for the support of the school board, especially Hobbs, for showing vision, and an excellent staff.

Fannin said his time at SDSA had been both demanding and rewarding.

“One of the challenges is running an elementary school schedule, and a middle school schedule, using a small staff,” he noted.

“One of the advantages is, being a small school, we get to know people very well,” he said. “We get to see children grow over time.”

“This is a great place to raise kids, and kids have success here,” Fannin emphasized.