Referring to Judy Bowns as a drama queen might be going a bit far.
She definitely presides over drama, however, and Fairfax County Public Schools and The Cappies are her domain. As the school division’s theatre arts and dance specialist, Judy is chief advocate for the performing arts and their role in education. Judy is also the co-founder and director of The Cappies, as well as a proud Wahoo and loyal supporter of the Curry School.
Judy came to Fairfax County in 1970 as an English teacher. In 1998, she began supporting arts education from the county administrative level in the Fine Arts office. “For some students, participation in the arts is the only thing that keeps them coming to school,” she observes. “Then we can say, ‘but you also have to pass your classes.’”
Judy also believes that theater offers an alternative means to connect with kids who learn differently. “If students aren’t learning in the traditional way, they need the opportunity to learn in a way in which they can engage and invest,” she says.
For the past few years, she has led an initiative called Drama to the Core. Theater teachers work with teachers in the core subject areas of science, mathematics, social studies, and language arts to develop curriculum for delivering content through theater strategies. “Educators in Fairfax County are beginning to recognize that kinesthetic learning can make a difference,” she says.
Judy’s crowning achievement is The Cappies, a critics and awards program for high school theater and journalism students that she and the late Bill Strauss founded in 1999. Each June Judy co-hosts a Kennedy Center awards gala, which she calls “a high school version of the Tony Awards.” What began as a county program quickly expanded throughout the entire metro Washington, DC, area and now encompasses over fifty-five schools. Other regions have picked up the idea, and fifteen Cappies chapters have sprung up across the U.S., along with three in Canada.
Despite the astounding success of The Cappies, Judy had fostered a different dream for over three decades she worked in Virginia schools: a degree from the University of Virginia. She finally realized that dream when she walked the Lawn in May 2005 and received her master’s degree from the Curry School’s social foundations in education program. She took all her coursework through the School of Continuing and Professional Studies’ Northern Virginia Center.
“I really, really enjoyed those two years and two summers,” she says of her time working on her degree, “and the flexibility of the program was a perfect match for my schedule.”
Because she feels so fortunate to have been able to attend the Curry School, she began making monthly donations to the Curry School Foundation in 2007.
“I’m thrilled to do it,” she says. “Every person needs to look at what they can give back—no matter how small—in order to perpetuate the cycle.”
And then just a hint of drama creeps into her voice: “Truly the greatest gift is the chance to give back. At this point in my career, it’s not only an opportunity but a moral obligation for me.”
Story and photo by Lynn Bell