Photogenic An Artistic and Academic Accomplice

BASIS Oro Valley Dean of Students Leigh Preuss (seated), along with Registrar Jennifer Nilsen, Head of School Elizabeth Thies, and Director of Student Affairs Cameron Louis.

Photograph by Lara Eltze
Photograph by Lara Eltze
“My content area is their individual success.”

For Leigh Preuss, now in her sixth year at the school, that notion was beneficial in her initial role as a teacher, and continues to be relevant as Dean of Students for 6th – 12th graders at BASIS Oro Valley.

“I liked that the job was so creative, and that the school let me come up with the curriculum,” Preuss tells me over the telephone recently, reflecting on her teaching days. “It’s a really creative environment.”

Leigh Preuss is the precise type of person who becomes a successful BASIS.ed teacher. She exudes passion, but with overwhelming grace. She is exuberant about her students and their development – “I just love that age!” she tells me of middle schoolers. “You either love them – or you don’t. And I do!” And she is an expert at the subject she teaches, which is fine arts and photography. She is almost literally a walking, talking, tirelessly-working, student-supporting billboard for what a great teacher should be – and what BASIS.ed teachers so often are.

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Preuss left a previous successful career as a professional photographer, where she had been overseeing adults in workshops and seminars. She’d heard that BASIS Oro Valley was looking for a 7th grade photography teacher – whimsically applied – and got the job.

It was 2011, when BASIS Oro Valley was about to start its second year of existence (and was the youngest BASIS.ed school – and just the network’s third).

“I was nervous about becoming a teacher,” she says. “But from my second day I knew it was what I wanted to be. It was so much fun – the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. We smiled every day; we learned a lot every day. We figured it out!”

The reach of Preuss’ artistic expertise has been pervasive. Indeed, since she started teaching at BASIS Oro Valley, she has taught “all of the fine art classes”: beginning, intermediate, advanced, honors, and AP Studio Art for grades 6-12, as well as photography for 8th-12th graders.

Photograph by Lara Eltze
Photograph by Lara Eltze
Her value is common knowledge.

“Leigh Preuss is a phenomenal teacher, mentor, and – now – Dean of Students. She truly cares about our students – I mean, truly cares,” says BASIS Oro Valley Head of School Elizabeth Thies, who has worked with Preuss for many years. “She has always gone above and beyond to support them, to make them successful.”

(Preuss tells me of Thies, “I mean this sincerely: I’d follow her into battle! I would, I would!”)

Not only did Preuss quickly love what she was doing, but she was quickly excellent at doing it. “I liked that the job was so creative. BASIS.ed allowed me to come up with the curriculum, let me mold it to what the kids wanted. I’d see where the kids were, see where they’d get the most growth. I wasn’t following something linear and written out. I had a lot of room.

“They wanted kids to go from point A to point B, but they didn’t care how. That was up to me.”

Preuss is well liked, enthusiastic, beloved by students, and respected by peers. She’s a great teacher not just in the ‘holds the students’ attention’ or ‘really knows her stuff’ way. But also in that her students – every last one of them – truly learn, and truly learn to love her subject.

Preuss was the first BASIS.ed teacher to teach an AP course to BASIS.ed photographers, and every student she’s taught in Advanced Placement Digital Art has earned a 5 on the AP exam. Every student.

“I’m pretty proud of that,” she says, and if someone can exude equal measures of enthusiastic purpose and humble gratitude in five short words, Leigh Preuss just did.

“Yes, she is one of a kind,” Thies says, and follows with an understatement. “Leigh is truly treasured for all that she does at our school!”

Photograph by Maren Eltze
Photograph by Lara Eltze

I wanted to get a glimpse of Preuss from her students, so I communicated with Maren and Lara Eltze, college-bound twins who graduated from BASIS Oro Valley last spring, and who’d each taken two of her classes. Preuss had suggested I speak with the Eltze’s because she enjoyed them so immensely, and because they are each exceedingly talented photographers. (You can see several of their photographs throughout this piece.)

Photograph by Maren Eltze
Photograph by Maren Eltze
“We see the world differently because of her,” Maren tells me via email.

Lara writes that Preuss “ensured that I maximized my full potential,” and then, as if she realizes how formal that sounds, adds, “I could not have done anything without her. She has been so supportive, has been an amazing friend and teacher!”

To be fair, Preuss adores these students as well. “They’re my people,” she says. “Working with them felt like an artistic collaboration. They had these ideas, and it was my job to help them get them on paper. It was a very collaborative experience, and it was very easy, a partnership between the three of us.”

Preuss is not teaching this academic year, as she is now the Dean of Students for 6th-12th Grade at BASIS Oro Valley.

“I didn’t think becoming a Dean was something I was going to do,” she says. “But I had been doing a lot of academic support, one on one with kids, in my final years of teaching – being able to help kids where they were struggling. So it was a natural transition.”

The similarities don’t end there.

“When it came to helping students develop their artistic portfolios, each kid is different. I’m their coach, technical advisor, teacher, nagging voice to mind their deadlines,” she laughs. “But at its best, like it was with the twins, I am their artistic accomplice.”

Photograph by Maren Eltze
Photograph by Maren Eltze

And as Dean of Students? “My content area is their individual success,” she says again. An artistic accomplice at the head of the classroom; down the hall, as a newly minted dean, Leigh Preuss is now an academic accomplice.

Thies, her Head of School, readily agrees. “As Dean, she finds a way to make each interaction with her students meaningful. She has high expectations but also goes out of her way to make sure that our students feel honored, treasured, and loved.”

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Photograph by Maren Eltze
Photograph by Maren Eltze
I ask Preuss how she works with students – for example, with the Eltze twins. “Collaboratively, always,” she says. “They’d bring me ideas, sketches, snapshots – and we would critique the work together, ask questions and talk out the ideas. They would go back out and shoot and bring me work. And then the process repeats itself over and over.”

It’s a process that sounds readily applicable to being a Dean of Students – an “academic accomplice” – someone whose “content area is individual success.”

Preuss says that, for their AP Studio Art portfolios, each young woman was assigned to present a traditional fairy tale in a contemporary manner – and each produced work that was extremely impressive, “well beyond their ages.” Maren’s was a modern rendition of the original German version of Little Red Riding Hood. Lara’s was Sleeping Beauty.

“Artistically, I do dark, photographic portraiture,” Maren wrote to me. “I’ve always been drawn to eerie and provocative themes and art – especially in portraits — but I didn’t start creating that myself until I took Ms. Preuss’s photography class in 8th grade.”

Lara noted, “I capture the light that reflects off of objects. I pay great attention to the way light bounces off of surfaces, and the surrounding shadows. I didn’t see things this way until I had Ms. Preuss – a pleasure! She taught us all how lighting shapes photography, and that’s something I will never forget.”

“The work reflects their love for dark and heavy artwork. It’s truly beautiful, but in a completely different way.,” Preuss says, delivering immense credit to the Eltze’s for their impressive projects portfolios. “It’s at first surprising for that darkness to come out of them – their aesthetic is cold, and clean – and in life, they’re warm and wonderful! But then again, they are gifted artists, and talented women.”

Maren notes that “Ms. Preuss was amazing in helping me and my sister transfer this theme into our photography, teaching us both how to develop our mysterious taste and portrait skills.”

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Leigh Preuss and student hanging artwork
Leigh Preuss (left) and BASIS Oro Valley Head of School Elizabeth Thies hang student artwork as the academic year kicks off.
The Eltze women may have gotten the artistic gene from their mother, Tanja Eltze, who is an artist and painter. Her company, moca23, specializes in producing custom modern art, and was recently featured in Tucson Lifestyle magazine; (it’s the July, 2016 issue – page 14). Vitally, the Eltze’s each also see a connection between Ms. Preuss, the passion for photography she instilled in them, and the academic success they enjoyed – even away from the fine arts.

“My general focus within the BASIS.ed curriculum has largely been math and science based, so this contrast with an artistic photography class has been a very important to my education,” Maren says. “Photography provided me with an outlet to express myself. That’s difficult in much of my normal curriculum, and the escape allowed me to be more focused and productive, and succeed academically.”

“She’s an incredibly gifted and intelligent woman and without Mrs. Preuss I would be nowhere near where I am today – and not just in photography,” Lara says. “My classes were very technical – so having a creative outlet was wonderful.”

Preuss’ influence is felt across the network, as its Fine Arts programs have grown substantially.

“BASIS.ed continues to value the arts – as it has since I started,” she tells me. “But now we offer more art, music, and drama in K-5 than the public schools in many of our locations. We’re known for our academic program, but I wish the general public knew how many classes the kids can take in the arts!”

It’s a truth within the BASIS.ed network, in no small part because of Leigh Preuss.

Phil Handler

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