The Alabama School of Fine Arts—known commonly as ASFA—is a junior and senior high school in Birmingham created by the legislature in 1971 to provide tuition-free instruction for talented and gifted students from throughout the state. Students qualify via audition to enroll in one of six intensive specialty programs: creative writing, dance, mathematics and science, music, theatre, and visual arts. Students also complete all the core academic requirements of a regular Alabama public high school diploma.
ASFA operates with annual legislative appropriations and oversight provided by an independent board of trustees. The board is comprised of at least 17 individuals who include representatives from the arts, academics, and a wide range of professions and who are appointed by the Alabama Board of Education. The trustees employ an executive director to administer the school. Capital funding comes primarily from the private sector through the ASFA Foundation, a non-profit group that also raises money for instructional enrichment and student support.
ASFA can house up to 375 students in a complex that consists of studios, classrooms, labs, practice rooms, performance spaces, a library, a cafeteria, and dormitory space for up to 80 individuals. The school attracts a diverse student body that reflects Alabama's demographic makeup. In the 2007-08 school year, for example, 64 percent of the school's 352 students were white, 19 percent were African American, 15 percent were Asian, and 2 percent were Hispanic. The school recruits and retains students based on preparation, motivation, and focus within a chosen specialty. ASFA offers no athletics or clubs and instead emphasizes learning and performance, with outreach offerings to other schools and the community, including performances, lecture demonstrations, and contests recognizing students in other schools.
ASFA students have earned a host of national and state distinctions in arts and academic competitions, in testing, and in acceptances and scholarships from leading conservatories, colleges, universities, and performing companies. Graduates have achieved success in a wide range of professions throughout Alabama, the United States, and abroad.
ASFA's roots began in the 1950s and 1960s, when various Birmingham parents and arts advocates appealed to state leaders about the need for a school for students interested in ballet and music. Gov. Lurleen Wallace responded with an August 24, 1967, proclamation of the Alabama High School for the Fine Arts (AHSFA) pilot program and a discretionary start-up grant of $10,000. The school subsequently received direct support from Wallace's immediate successors, governors Albert Brewer and George C. Wallace.
In 1967, the school operated out of Birmingham's Phillips High School and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, with Jack Mann, Phillips' boys advisor, serving as director. The school was primarily a dance and theatre program, with a few music and visual arts students taking private lessons. Students attended morning academic classes at Phillips and pursued outside arts classes in the afternoon.
On August 31, 1971, the legislature passed a joint resolution establishing the school, with a board of directors appointed by the state board of education and yearly funding in the education department's budget. In 1972, the AHSFA board named James R. Nelson, then head of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Huntingdon College, to serve as executive director. He designed basic curricula and hired teachers for dance, music, theatre, and visual arts, including his wife, Andrea C. Nelson, who became music chair. That year, the school moved to Samford University and Homewood High School. In 1974, the school added seventh and eighth grades and a creative writing department and adopted its present name. Birmingham City Schools appointed four teachers to provide core academic instruction and the school moved again, this time to Birmingham-Southern College.
In 1976, the ASFA board created the ASFA Foundation in large part to acquire a campus but also for general fundraising. In 1977, the school moved to the former Eva Comer residence hall in downtown Birmingham on North 18th Street. The campus also included one adjacent warehouse, and later a second, each partitioned to designate various arts and academic work spaces.
The ASFA Foundation hired Frances Verstandig, a former national Junior League official, as its second executive director in 1986. Two years later, the foundation launched a capital campaign, headed by Emil Hess, chair of Parisian, Inc., to raise funds to build a new campus. Over the next three years, the foundation raised $10 million from city, county, state, and private sources. In 1990, the foundation and city of Birmingham exchanged properties to allow ASFA to build its new facility one block east on 8th Avenue North between 18th and 19th Streets.
With a major financial gift from the Russell Corporation in Alexander City, the school added its sixth specialty, the Russell Mathematics and Science program in 1991. The program operated partially off-campus in a nearby building loaned by the Alabama Power Company. The legislature revised the school's enabling legislation in 1992 to provide more specific authority to a new ASFA board of trustees. On April 5, 1993, the school moved into its new home, becoming the first state-supported residential and commuter secondary school in the nation designed specifically to teach gifted and talented students. Later, the school built an attached theater, a math and science wing, and a creative writing wing.
Nelson retired in June 1996, and John Northrop, an ASFA staff member from 1980-86 and a public school administrator, became executive director in January 1997. Bryding Adams, an author and former museum professional, became executive director of the ASFA Foundation in January 2000. In 2006, the foundation launched a $12 million funding campaign to build a 650-seat performance center on adjacent property pledged under an economic redevelopment contract with the city of Birmingham.
ASFA gained greater independence from the state in 2007 with a shift from partial funding via the state school board to a direct legislative appropriation for all its operational funding. This move capped a process that began in 2003, when the school ended its personnel relationship with Birmingham City Schools, followed by a 2006 change in law eliminating state school board oversight. In August 2011, Northrop retired and music educator and school administrator Michael Meeks became ASFA executive director.