Touchdown for Arts Pinellas

I wrote this piece for 83 Degrees Media, an online community publication.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL—No one can argue that Florida teachers and administrators have, and continue, to work hard to ensure that students across the state achieve and perform at ever increasing levels of academic excellence.

Schools are hosting summer camps featuring science, reading and math. There are incentive programs that reward academic achievement with special privileges and prizes for those who qualify. More teachers are spending their vacations in workshops to increase their academic knowledge. And yes, students across the state are performing better each year on that biggest—and most feared—yardstick of success—The Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT), a natural outgrowth of The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002.

But what good is all that if you don’t know what you stand for?

That’s the question a team comprised of three innovative and talented women decided to investigate at the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year.  Fifth-grade teacher Amy Van Wormer, actor and teaching artist Nan Colton and arts administrator Elizabeth Brincklow met around a kitchen table last summer and brainstormed ideas that would awaken students’ inner voice and stimulate critical thinking. An artist residency entitled “My Dream, My Solution,” was born.

The project allowed students to explore their own thoughts and feelings on freedom, equality and their personal futures by looking at what other thinkers, orators, artists and other influential people had to say. They were further challenged to come up with answers and plans to put those dreams into action.

And last Thursday, April 26, students at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg celebrated their work and their success—both as a group and on very personal levels.

The residency, coordinated largely by Ms. Brincklow, Education and Community Arts Manager at the Mahaffey Theater at the Progress Energy Center, was accomplished by generous funding from Verizon, Progress Energy, the Mahaffey Theater Foundation, and the City of St. Petersburg.

“The outcome of the residency was beyond my expectation. There was great reward for everyone involved as a result of the literary, performance, visual art and technology components and their direct links with the classroom curriculum,” Ms. Brincklow said.

Upon entering the cafeteria last Thursday evening, spectators were greeted by row upon row of free-standing collages created by the fifth grade at the Title 1 school. Each collage held symbols and images that spoke of hope, ambition, passion and empathy. Most of the collages were further accompanied by an essay and an enlarged photograph.

As Nan Colton greeted parents, students and teachers in attendance, she reminded them, “It is no good having a dream if you don’t do something about it.”

Javarrius McClendon, 12, began his essay with:

My dream is for everyone to treat each other like a football team. Football is like a second family to me. They have each other’s back in football. They care for each other.  If somebody gets injured in the game, we all make sure they are all right.

His best friend, Antonio Smith, also 12, wrote:

People should have the same rights and be equal. Everyone should have a job…Kids should be able to go to school, get an education, pass the FCAT and go to college…I am going to get an education. I will get a scholarship and get into college.

When asked how they felt about their work and recognition, Javarrius smiled shyly.  “Good,” he answered simply. His friend Antonio spoke up. “I learned a lot from Ms. Nan.”

Teacher Garth Albury was overwhelmed by what he saw and experienced Thursday.

“It was wonderful.  It was like walking into a gallery with all of the displays. But some of them…something came out of some of those kids that I didn’t even expect. I was reading (one student’s) dream and his solution…And he mentioned a lot of negative things about his past. And then he wrote, ‘Well, I’ve told you enough about my past.  But this is what it’s gonna be like in the future. And he mentioned about helping rather than fighting.’”

Mirella Smith, a member of the Mahaffey Foundation Board of Directors had this to say: “I saw the future of those kids changed because of this residency. It gave them the opportunity to understand and create their dream. I say understand because had they not been asked, some of them would not know they had a dream. But because of this residency they know that they can dream and they can make their dream a reality.

“In the little time I was there I saw the enthusiasm in the kids supported by the teachers and the parents; there was union and pride. Art equals creativity. Creativity is essential in all fields of education.  If we can expose children to art, we will have more creative minds, better-educated youth ready to actively pursue their dream—provided the program continues steadily.  The pride and the joy of those kids was overwhelming and I am sure a great reward for all those involved in the residency.”

The residency began on Dec. 11, 2006, with a field trip to the Leepa Rattner Museum in Tarpon Springs. Ms. Colton appeared before the students as Dora Maar, close friend of Salvadore Dali during the time he created the Guernica, his artistic protest against the Spanish Civil War. Ms. Colton performed her piece before a replica of the Guernica at the museum.

Ms. Colton returned to the classroom each Monday for the next 12 weeks—during one session she appeared as Miep Gies, the young woman who helped hide Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis during the beginning of the Holocaust. In costume and with a new accent, she passionately described the Frank family and what it was like to live under such extreme fear and oppression.

She handed out journals and encouraged them to write their thoughts down on a daily basis. She worked with the students to help them construct their essays.  Once the essays were finished, students were given cameras, paid for through a grant from a Pinellas Education Foundation “Teach for Excellence” grant awarded to Amy Van Wormer, who served as team leader for the teachers involved in the project.

Students then worked with art teacher Deena Szakacs, who guided them in taking their photographs and creating collages representing their thoughts and dreams to accompany the essays. The Pinellas County Cultural Affairs Division assisted in the purchase of the collage materials through an arts teacher incentive grant.

In February, the students attended a moving production of national touring company Theatre IV’s  I Have A Dream: The Life and Times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., presented by Class Acts Educational Series at the Mahaffey Theater.

To qualify as a Title 1 school,  at least 40 percent of its students must come from low income families as defined by the United States Census as low income. Schools who qualify as Title 1 are then regulated by federal legislation.

Banner photo by Unsplash.


*Some of the information in this older article may be outdated.

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