Five years ago Kwesi Moody, the headmaster at Dorchester academy, realized the power that art can have on a child.
It was a day like any other, as he walked through his school he found his students "krumping", and singing in the hallways, but that day, instead of telling them to get to class, Moody decided to stop and watch. What he saw surprised him, suddenly his students no longer looked like kids in need of discipline, instead, they looked like gifted students who simply wanted to be heard, and who more than anything needed an outlet to express themselves.
At the time, Moody told me that his high school had only three subjects that were split up between a 6 hour school day. With no break for physical activity let alone the arts, and attendance at a low, Moody knew something had to change. After hiring Chandra Ortiz to be Dorchester academies first arts director, the school received funding from EDVestors Arts Expansion fund for a creativity lab program. Since implementing the program, Moody found his students not only wanting to come to school, but wanting to learn. Since then, Chandra, a MassArt alum, went on to partner with CACP and Mass Art through their ArtMobile, Sparc!,a retrofitted multipurpose van stocked with all the supplies needed to bring printmaking, painting, drawing, and many other arts and crafts to the community.
Pablo Picasso once wrote that, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
Striving to keep that creativity in tact is exactly what Mass Art is all about. After all, arts education has long been recognized by academics, and parents for its positive impact on students both inside and outside the classroom. In fact, in a 2012 analysis of longitudinal research on the relationship between arts engagement and students' academic and social outcomes, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that youth of low socioeconomic status with a history of high arts engagement had better grades, higher college enrollment and attainment rates than youth without such involvement. Additionally, arts education contributed to increased parent and community involvement. Not only does art help to develop the right side of the brain, but it also expands a child's ability to interact with the world around them by cultivating important skills that go far beyond the tangible statistics measured by studies.
This year marks the third fashion challenge developed for Dorchester Academy students by MassArt Associate Professor of Fashion Design, James Mason '81. For this year's assignment, themed "voice," students will pull inspiration from lyrics and poetry for their designs created with the non-traditional material of paper. This collaborative program was created to introduce design as a viable course of study and career choice for students interested in art and design; over the past three years the challenge has inspired over 75 students to try their hand at fashion design and consider careers in the creative industries.
On March 27th I got to see the impact that MassArt and the Sparc! initiative has had on students at Dorchester Academy. At 7:30 am I walked through the doors of the academy to speak to the students on behalf of Mass Art. I came hoping to inspire, and left having been inspired by them.
Because what I found when speaking to these students above anything else, was hope. Hope that art had instilled in them.
It was hope I saw in a young girls face as she spoke to James Mason about her plans for college. After naming a school she was considering applying too, James asked one simple question, why not MassArt? The young women looked surprised and simply said she didn't think it was an option for her. Mason, without a moment of hesitation began to tell the young woman how he was once in her shoes and that he believed she could and would help her in anyway he could. He meant it too, and she knew it. It was written all over her face. A calm had come over her, a sense of pride, of excitement. She had found someone who believed in her enough to allow her to believe in herself. And isn't that all that any of us need? In this constantly correcting, constantly evaluating world, there has to be space for acceptance, for presence. Space to dream a bigger dream than we ever could have imagined dreaming for ourselves.
"As an artist I believe an important role is to teach others - even outside of my position at MassArt. We have a duty to reach out to our broader community," James Mason told me. "Through this partnership we give the Dorchester Academy students the opportunity to experience this environment. We show them that an education at MassArt and a career in fashion are both possible. I see myself in these students; if I could attend MassArt, so can they."
It's a possibility of hope more and more students at Dorchester academy are seeing as a reality thanks to people likes James, Kwesi, Chandra, Nicole, and the rest of the DA and MassArt staff who are a part of this initiative.
One of my favorite conversations of the day took place with a vibrant and confident young aspiring poetry slam artist named Katrina, who is a student at Dorchester Academy. When I asked her how art has changed her life she simply smiled and told me that during uncertain times, she found solace in her art. Pablo Picasso once said that, "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls," and it seems to me that this is exactly what Mass Art and the Sparc! initiative have done for students like Katrina.
"As a result of our collaboration with MassArt, our arts teaching and learning practices at Dorchester Academy have grown stronger," Nicole Prefontaine, Arts Director at Dorchester Academy told me. "In addition to valuable artistic skills, students have also acquired non-cognitive skills through this program such as confidence, perseverance, leadership, purpose, and tenacity - competencies at the core of our program here at Dorchester Academy. Students are more interested in arts courses, are volunteering to be Arts Leaders, and are also applying to fashion design programs at the college level. Our teachers are now able to facilitate conversations with our students about college and careers in the fields of art and design."
What struck me the most during my visit about the staff at MassArt, and Dorchester Academy, was their sheer will to go above and beyond their job description in order to give their students the best possible chance at a successful future. Each and every one of them was willing and eager to have the tough conversations, and to live the questions so that they could slowly but surely find their way into the answers. Truth be told, what makes them such outstanding teachers is that they understand without a shadow of a doubt that they are shaping more than simply a curriculum, they're shaping the future of these youth. And from the looks of it... a bright future at that.
By Zoey Gulmi