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Program inspires kids through cultural arts

By Kalin Thomas Contributing Writer | 3/15/2013, noon

ATLANTA – On a recent Thursday morning, nearly 50 sixth-grade students from Price Middle School were chattering and laughing away at the Balzer Theater downtown.

They were waiting for the Theatrical Outfit’s play “Fly” to start – a play about the Tuskegee Airmen, who successfully fought in World War II but had to fight racism when they returned home.

Soon the lights go down and the students are rendered silent by the action on stage.

Most of these kids have never seen a play before. That’s why the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs started the Cultural Experience Project to give kids exposure to the Atlanta arts scene.

“One day I asked a young high school boy my daughter was dating to meet us at the Woodruff Arts Center, and he said he didn’t know where that was, said he program’s director, Camille Russull Love. “And I thought, ‘Hmmm.’

“I assumed, like my kids, that all kids knew the cultural resources of Atlanta,” she said. “But I did some research and found that cultural experience is not a high priority in a lot of schools, and some schools just don’t have the money to do it.”

So in 2005, Love started the Cultural Experience Project.

“I began calling cultural sites to see if they were interested in engaging Atlanta’s kids, and I asked if they could give us a certain amount of seats,” Love said. “It costs about $10 per child. We raise $500,000 annually to fund the program, and it gets paid directly to the actual cultural organizations/nonprofits.”

When Love started the program, organizers would give free passes to fifth graders to visit Cyclorama. But many of the students didn’t show up.

“We found out they didn’t have the money for bus transportation. So we went to Turner Broadcasting and they have provided the money annually to provide school buses to transport the kids to events,” Love said.

Studies show that arts exposure contributes to academic success and inspires hope and ambition, yet minority students tend to suffer the greatest decrease in arts exposure.

So, the Cultural Experience project provides every Atlanta Public Schools student, from pre-K to 12th grade (except charter schools), with at least one cultural experience every school year.

Cultural experiences include, but are not limited to: Imagine It! Children’s Museum, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Atlanta Ballet, Emory’s Carlos Museum, The High Museum of Art, The Atlanta Opera, Ballethnic Dance Company, Chattahoochee Nature Center, The Carter Center and various theaters.

And the experiment seems to be making a difference.

At the end of “Fly,” the Price Middle School sixth-graders had loud cheers for the actors, and said it was better than seeing it at the movies.

“It was a great play, and I really liked the action and the singing and dancing. It was much better seeing real-live people than seeing Red Tails,” said student Antonio Pierce.

And most students said they couldn’t wait to see another play.

“I have never been to a play before, but now I want to see a play about the Civil War,” said Jayla McMiller.

Kenorris Hopkins added: “I think I’d like to see another play about Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.”

They even got to meet a real Tuskegee Airmen – Val Archer.

“This type of program is crucial for students,” Archer said. “It gives them exposure and affects their development and future careers.”

Though the program’s success hasn’t been measured yet, officials say they’re seeing good results.

“Some problem students have been said to respond better in school after this experience,” said Arts in Education Program Manager Lena Carstens. “And it’s been good for the arts community at-large because the students are so well-behaved. So, we expect them to become future cultural patrons.”

Love concluded, “They say it takes a village to raise a child, and we’ve got an entire cultural village here in Atlanta.”