Henry Bridges founded Community School of the Arts in 1969, when he served as the organist and choir director of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Charlotte. The program was born after Henry realized that the Church had fifteen unused pianos in its basement and that it was surrounded by an urban neighborhood with children who could benefit from --- but could never afford --- high-quality music lessons.
Henry recruited four of the finest piano teachers in Charlotte as his faculty, and from more than 150 student applications, he accepted twenty children into the School's inaugural year. Students received instruction free of charge five days a week, including two piano lessons, supervised practice, choir, sight singing and music theory. The quality of the instruction was exceptional, and Community School of the Arts rapidly expanded to offer tuition-based programs for families who could pay for lessons, in addition to the School's free and discounted outreach programs.
Henry Bridges remained the executive director of the School until 1982, when he stepped away from administrative duties and became a full time piano teacher in the Piedmont Courts Public Housing Project. Henry brought his personal piano to the site and taught free weekly lessons to dozens of Piedmont Courts students. Henry retired from teaching in 1992 but remains a lifetime member of the School’s Board of Directors.
In 1998, the School, which had long been an independent non-profit housed at First Presbyterian Church, moved to new offices and studios at Spirit Square, providing a high profile downtown location for School programs. Spirit Square anchors a network of more than a dozen satellite locations across Charlotte, reaching students from all neighborhoods and more than 65 ZIP codes each year. The School has achieved a singular balance between its public programs, for which hundreds of families pay tuition, and its outreach programs, which are free to participants. From twenty students in 1969, the School has grown to serve more than 3,300 a year, and from four faculty members, the School has grown to employ over 45 dedicated instructors.
Through the School’s four decades, its programs have changed and expanded based on community demand, at times including dance, theatre and extensive school-based classes. The School now concentrates on instruction in music and the visual arts, offering private and group music lessons, visual art classes and workshops, summer camps, pottery classes and early childhood art education. And, as it has every year since its founding, Community School of the Arts teaches extensively in low-income neighborhoods and provides significant student financial assistance, honoring its founding mission and the belief that outstanding arts education should be available to all.