Arts Exposure, Arts Education and Arts Through Education: Alive and Well at Children's Aid Society Community Schools

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Although the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) is not an arts organization, throughout our history the arts have been indispensable, not just an add-on.Even during this challenging economic time the Arts Committee of our Board of Directors is determined to maintain the arts across the agency.  Arts exposure, arts education and arts through education for children and youth, and even for their families, are still alive and well at our community schools as well as at our community centers.

Richard Negron, Director of the CAS Community Schools, believes that the arts are a key component of the schools.  “For close to 20 years, we have witnessed how the arts have provided youth with proof that they are able to master a skill. It is no surprise that mastery is applied to other areas of their lives.”

Alma Whitford, Associate Director for Community Schools and in charge of the arts for the Community Schools Division, shares Negron’s opinion. “Regardless of financial constraints we are determined to maintain quality arts programs and exposure to the arts.   Art programs are expensive but we must make an effort to keep themgoing.  They have a very positive impact on all students, but particularly on the most challenging ones and we work with many of them.  There are so many talentedstudents and even talented parents.  I never cease to be amazed at the quality of their performances, their films, their drawings, their fashion shows… I can go on and on.”

One of CAS’ flagship visual and performing arts programs is located at the Mirabal Sisters Campus.  The program’s director, Jadrien Ellison, says that staff firmly advocatesarts education as a necessary tool in the development of productive, well-rounded young citizens. “The arts-based clubs aim to empower all students, not just those who are considered artistically talented, to create their own works, respondto and perform works of art, while building linkages to core academic subjects. As it is imperative that today’s youth have opportunities to express themselves beyond literacy and mathematics.  Our visual and performing arts clubs provide another way of looking, perceiving and knowing in efforts to prepare children to think creatively, skillfully and outside the box.” He adds that the emphasis is on the learning and doing in an experiential environment where all are expected to participate. “We strongly promote collaboration throughout our clubs as opportunities to enable all students to feel part of a community, celebrating their collective artistic abilities as well as their individual creative talents.”

Arts programs at CAS schools are delivered through teaching artists hired by CAS, partnerships with national or local organizations such as the New York City Ballet, the Broadway Institute,the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and with several museums.  There have also been partnerships with volunteer artists.   

Peter Max, the world-famous pop-artist, volunteered at one of the schools for two years, working with both students and parents and creating amazing murals in the school based on the students’ ideas. One current example of a famous, talented and humanitarian artistcontributing through the arts is Neil Waldman, director, funder and founder of the Fred Dolan Academy.

Waldman founded the academy in 2006 with his longtime friend Marc Broxmeyer.  The Academy provides intensive visual arts preparation for low-income students in the South Bronx, at one of the CAS community schools. The Academy is a school-year program, engaging 27 students for three hours on Saturdays.  Students spend equal time each session on drawing and painting, developing their visual acuity and artistic ability. The overall goal is that, by the time students complete high school, they will have developed work portfolios that will make them truly competitive candidates for art colleges.To do this successfully, the program emphasizes strong academic standards. Teachers work with college counselors to determine the best combination of grades, tests and artistic portfolios that each student will need in order to successfully enter college. All students that have graduated from the Academy have been accepted at top-rated art colleges, from the Rhode Island School of Design, to the School of Visual Arts, SUNY Purchase, SUNY Binghamton and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“Our success comes from three factors,” says Waldman.  “First, our teachers are passionate about their work.  They are all working professionals (illustrators, painters, designers), who have demonstrated a mastery of the technical skills required in their disciplines.  As such, they are able to instruct at levels found only at universities.  Our inner-city students have competed successfully with graduates from the finest private and suburban high schools.Second, we provide our students with the finest art supplies, from professional lighting, paints and pencils, to a wide array of high-quality papers.Third and most importantly, our students have chosen to work with us on Saturdays. They have demonstrated a single-mindedness, a dedication, choosing to spend their weekends focusing on their development as artists.Next year, we will be adding a middle school program, extending our reach to students from sixth to eighth grade.  It is our dream to continue building our academy so that one day, we will be able to offer our classes to all the young artists of the Bronx.”   

Another exemplary arts partnership that has been going for over 15 years is the one with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.   Hundreds of children at the community schools have profited from the Ailey Camp’s innovative summer program that uses disciplined dance training, creative writing instruction, personal development, and communication workshops, to help campers develop a respect for themselves and others that meaningfully impacts their lives.The Camp culminates with a performance of the highest quality that without doubt seals the experience on the participants’ memories –and that of their families.   The students finish the camp with confidence, new friendships, and a deeper love of dance.

The Arts Program at the CAS community schools has a vibrant parent component.  The schools partner with museums and individuals to expose parents to art and help them discover and develop their artistic talents.  Parents are offered a wide array of opportunities such as experimental video, arts appreciation, interiorand fashion design, among other.

Thinking of the future, Alma Whitfordsays thatit would be ideal to have an arts specialist to oversee the arts and provide guidance across the schools, to ensure quality.  “Our goal is to keep raising the bar.  Creating a stronger structure is essential.”