As a guitarist in the Nineties Christian rock band, Skillet, Ken Steorts managed a rarity in harmonizing entertainment and ministry. Today, as president of Visible School, Steorts and his staff of 30 are harmonizing education, music, and faith as part of a three-year college program that's changing — and shaping — the lives of young people from as far away as Alaska and the Czech Republic. On the heels of the institution's 10th anniversary this year, Visible School will be moving downtown from its current location in the Cooper-Young district. Its new home will be the distinctive, glass-roofed building at 200 Madison Avenue, just across the street from AutoZone Park's leftfield bluff.
Visible School has a student body of around 100, many of them living in the nine-unit condominium at 670 Madison currently being leased by the school. With three primary majors — music, music business, and music production — Steorts' brainchild is thriving in ways he didn't envision a decade ago. With the school scheduled to open in the fall of 2000, Steorts found himself in late July of that year with but one applicant. He considers the flurry of applications he received that August — around 20 — to be the first sign from above that Visible School was meant to be.
"When I was with Skillet," reflects Steorts, "we played hundreds of shows a year around the world. Every single night, I saw a young band opening a show before us. And they were either wonderful, sweet people with not very good music, or they had great music and they were just full of themselves. In [the Christian rock] market, stardom wasn't the point. I kept hoping there would be some place these people could go for the critical and skill training, to get the artistic and spiritual together. There has to be a place for these kids who are serious about music to transition from childhood faith to being an adult and serving in the church or being grounded Christians."
Applicants must take two steps atypical of aspiring college freshmen. They must audition and display a foundational skill in music, be it on a piano or an electric guitar. (Those on the music-production track can bring a CD with music from bands they've promoted or managed.) And applicants must sign a form acknowledging a relationship with Jesus Christ.
"We're not really competing with other colleges," says Steorts. "This is a real niche. That devoted, black-wearing, rock kid in your church . . . this is the college for them. Typically this is the only college they'd be interested in. We're hitting a narrow market. Now, it's not entirely hard-rock anymore. Most of these students are writing country or pop-rock mix. We're seeing a genre meltdown, which is great." Most students are not from Memphis, so they arrive in a music hotbed with fresh tastes and approaches to their passion.
Tuition, room, and books are just under $20,000 per year. And being a three-year program, Visible School compares favorably to the cost of attending many four-year colleges. In addition to the focus on music and faith, a core curriculum is offered, including the likes of English comp and physics. When possible the classes are taught in the context of music or the music industry. (Visible School was granted accreditation by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools last year. Degrees earned prior to the accreditation have been retroactively recognized.)
The latest addition to the Visible School faculty is Bill Ellis, an artist (and critic) Steorts describes as a "local music hero." Half of the staff has been through the Visible School. "They're very involved in the students' lives," emphasizes Steorts. "They're helping with the transition."
Students are required to attend church, but which house of faith they attend is a matter of choice. Visible School students can be seen — and heard performing — with Christ United Methodist Church and Living Hope Baptist, among others.
Steorts is aiming to move into his school's new home debt-free, which has made fund-raising a daily priority in recent months. A recent $250,000 grant from the Assisi Foundation has helped tremendously. "We're looking for people out there who will resonate with our mission," he says, "and with downtown development." An anonymous foundation is matching grants up to $3 million.
A rocker-turned-college president, Steorts admits he's looking for a special kind of student and staff. "You have to have a person who is academically qualified," he says, "who appreciates study, the history of music, and the bigger picture of music as a language and form. And a love for spiritual development."