Study after study proves that children who study the arts in school are more likely to graduate, more likely to be good citizens, more likely to vote, to volunteer and have higher SAT scores.
The Virginia Arts Festival has always had student outreach as one of their core principals. According to Christine Foust, Director of Education and Community Engagement, the VAF has a “four-pronged mission. It is to present the greatest arts in the world here in Hampton Roads, to commission new works of art, to impact tourism, and to bring great artists into the lives of students whether they are studying performing arts or exposing them to the arts for the first time.”
In 1997, the Virginia Arts Festival reached just under 10,000 students. That was the first year, when the VAF was known as the Virginia International Waterside Arts Festival. In the 2015 – 2016 school year, the VAF reached 39,644 students between 108 separate education events and students attending public concerts.
Student outreach means going out to the schools and other community groups, “getting to meet the kids where they are, in their own comfort zone.” Christine believes that this type of outreach has the most impact. Last year, the VAF sent world-class performing artists to 165 different schools in 16 different school districts, public and private, from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach.
Student outreach for the VAF happens throughout the school year, not just during the time of the Arts Festival. Before the Festival began this year, the VAF had artists to 60 events in schools at “no cost to the school, no cost to the students.” The VAF brought the Alvin Ailey junior company to Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk just for student outreach. They did not give a public performance. Booker T. Washington High School houses one of Norfolk Public Schools High School Specialty Programs, the Academy of the Arts.
Students from throughout the district can apply to the Academy of the Arts, which offers classes in both the visual and performing arts.
Tamika Steeley, Director of Dance for the Academy of the Arts Program, works closely with the VAF. “Bringing programs like this to Booker T. Washington High School gives the students the opportunity to broaden their horizons. In a lot of cases, students cannot afford to take classes outside of school or go see these shows. Having the opportunity to have such outstanding groups come to the schools is a very, very important thing for them to expand their education in the arts.” The VAF outreach at Booker T. Washington was paid for from the Robin Hixon Education endowment, funded by corporate sponsors and grants, including a three-year grant from the Batton Educational Achievement Fund at the Hampton Roads Community Foundation.
I watched a small, select group of Ms. Steeley’s dance students one morning at Booker T. The Urban Bush Women were in town to perform at the Attucks Theater for the VAF. The Urban Bush Women are a Brooklyn based contemporary dance troupe, founded 33 years ago by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. They weave together dance, music, video and spoken word into an organic style of dance to perform the “history and culture of the African Diaspora.” They consider themselves to be an artistic and activist company.
The young men and women from Ms. Steeley’s dance classes started out quiet, shy, a bit giggly, just like high school students anywhere. The three members of the Urban Bush Women were great teachers as well as artists. Student outreach is also part of their mission.
They used humor, music and gentle nudges to get the students dancing and creating. “Your ideas are part of the learning in the room. Be courageous. Let your ideas into the space.” They turned up the music, encouraged, and guided the lesson. In five minutes, there was wonderful, original dancing going on in the room. The students were also invited to attend the evening performance.
Christine Foust meets with teachers each fall. She develops relationships with the arts teachers from dance to strings, winds, vocal and theater. She says, “Our teachers to an amazing job every day. We’re not trying to replace them, we’re trying to supplement and enrich their programs. We listen to what they need, we work together to prepare students for the workshops and master classes and do what’s best for their students. When we can bring a string quartet into a school, a student studying cello may never have seen their instrument being performed at a professional level. It is a really meaningful experience.”
For more information about the Virginia Arts Festival’s student outreach programs go here.