BY NANCY MILLER
Gone are the days when horse-drawn carriages were manufactured at the 19th century brick building at 634 Mechanic Street. Since 2007, the 1850s structure (christened ART 634 in 2001) has been the setting for the fastest growing arts education venue in Jackson.
Founded as the Jackson School of the Arts (JSA) in 2001, JSA’s growth has been phenomenal. In 2007, the nonprofit school offered 40 different classes in art, dance and theater for children. This year, students can choose from an amazing array of 91 classes for ages 2-1/2 to adult. Since 2004, enrollment in onsite classes has soared from less than 40 students to over 550 students. Another 2,000 students participate in after-school art clubs at elementary schools throughout Jackson County and through other programs, including special events, field trips and workshops. Behind that growth is the passion of the people at the helm, parents and a supportive community.
Most weekday mornings and early afternoons, JSA is as quiet as a smile. It’s the time when Executive Director Kim Hastings and Manager of Operations Robin Sparkman knuckle down and attend to the nuts and bolts that make JSA flourish. Hastings oversees programming, marketing and every element of finance from fundraising to grant proposals. “One of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we’ve grown and evolved over time,” said Hastings, who joined JSA in 2004. “We’ve had slow and steady growth that’s essential to every organization.” JSA limits class size to 10 in art, 12 in dance and 15 in theater. “Students have varying backgrounds and skill levels,” Hastings said. “A smaller class size allows for individual interaction with the instructor. When classes are full, we add more if the schedule allows it. We would rather not ever turn students away.”
JSA also gives students opportunities to try different things and find out what they’re good at. If a class isn’t a good fit, they can try another class. “Environment also has to do with our growth,” Hastings said. “JSA is a unique, welcoming and inclusive place.” Community support is another factor in JSA’s growth. Outside Hastings’ office is a floor-to-ceiling list of individuals, foundations and companies that help JSA accomplish its mission to ensure Jackson County children have access to arts education regardless of family income. Their donations help offset the cost of youth programs. “We say thank you in as many ways as we can,” Hastings said. “JSA couldn’t exist without donor support.”JSA has expanded, in part, because of Sparkman’s dedication and people skills, Hastings said. A former elementary school teacher and social worker, Sparkman loves working with kids and families.
She oversees daily operations: Banking, ordering supplies and organizing schedules. She also distributes JSA flyers to area elementary schools, answering questions posed by families on the phone, registering students and talking up classes with families.
“Another reason we’ve grown and expanded is because Robin handles so many facets of our operations really well and works behind the scenes,” Hastings said. “From the moment children enroll, she makes sure it’s a good experience for them.” Sparkman added, “There are so many things to do. We’ve never slowed down. We keep growing.”
“The quality of our programming also has a lot to do with our growth,” Hastings said. “We have fantastic instructors here. They’re not only talented and experienced in their area but also great at working with kids. We ask parents to let us know how we can help their child have the very best experience. That’s passed along to our 17 instructors.”
Among JSA’s teaching staff is Diego Febres-Cordero, Technical and Artistic Director of Theatre at Jackson High School. “Students really like Diego,” Hastings said. “He’s a good role model. Students love his stage makeup class where they transform themselves into animals, zombies or someone with cuts and bruises. It’s a really fun and engaging way to learn make-up techniques.” Victoria Britten, 17, has taken stage makeup and theater classes from Febres-Cordero and appeared in JSA’s production of “Ho Ho Ho: The Santa Claus Chronicles.” Before attending JSA, she participated in a home school co-op drama program. “We decided to see what’s in our own backyard and found JSA,” said mother Kim Britten, who couldn’t be happier. “Everyone at JSA is accommodating and supportive. Now we tell all of our friends about Jackson School of the Arts.”
Rhiannon Ragland, a resident artist at the Purple Rose Theater Company, teaches theater classes for children ages 5 to 10 as well as a workshop for adults. “It’s a great opportunity for people interested in theater to work with someone of her caliber,” Hastings said.
“Each theater class results in a production. We love that students get to shine on stage, but we’re equally concerned about teaching them life skills regardless of their career path. A lot of theater skills translate into life skills: being articulate, preparing what to say, and becoming poised and confident.”
Hastings’ predecessor, Leslie Montgomery, founded JSA in 2001. “Leslie’s daughters took piano and dance lessons, but she saw that many of her daughters’ friends didn’t have the opportunity to participate in those programs because their parents couldn’t afford it,” Hastings said. “She saw a need and did something about it. She developed the sliding fee scale based on income.”When Montgomery relocated in 2004, Hastings became JSA’s full-time director. She has carried on JSA’s mission to make sure kids have access to the arts regardless of family income. “More families are hearing about us and more need help,” Sparkman said. “They tell us they would never be able to have their children take lessons without the sliding fee scale.” Sheryl Sabo credits a flyer her daughter, Natalie, brought home from kindergarten for getting her daughter enrolled in ballet. “I had checked other schools, but they were too expensive,” said Sabo, then a single parent working at a nonprofit. “I was impressed it was a nonprofit, and lessons were based on income.” Now 11, Natalie has been taking dance lessons at JSA for seven years.
Besides the sliding fee family income scale available for most youth classes, JSA offers additional scholarship support. For dance students, closets are packed to the brim with recital costumes that rent for $15 each, a bargain compared to the typical cost of $80 for a new recital costume. JSA also operates the Best Little Dance Store, an onsite store with everything students need for dance classes. Students from other dance schools are welcome to shop there.
Filling the gap
When schools face budget concerns, the first programs to go are often music and art. With the focus on standardized achievement tests, more teaching time is devoted to reading, writing, math and science and less time to the arts. “It’s important to me that we don’t miss the boat on education,” Hastings said. “We believe that an education without the arts is an incomplete education. Every time period in history also has a history of art and music and theater. It’s more fun to watch a football game when you understand the rules and plays. It’s the same for the arts. If you understand the history and the artist, you’ll appreciate and enjoy the experience more.” Studies have found that involvement in the arts provides life-enhancing experiences, such as building teamwork, responsibility, confidence and self-esteem. Students also communicate better with adults and peers. JSA programs provide students with leadership and mentoring opportunities. For example, Natalie is an assistant in
ballet and ballet/tap classes for younger children, while Victoria assists in theater classes.
Through its partnership with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra (JSO) Community Music School, JSA is exposing more children to all aspects of the arts. “The partnership offers a well-rounded experience,” said Carol Ivkovich, Director of the JSO Community Music School. Two years ago, the music school presented “Hip Hop Nutcracker” for children.
“I asked Kim if dancers at the Jackson School of the Arts could participate,” Ivkovich said. “We don’t offer dance and art; Jackson School of the Arts doesn’t have music.” (JSA offered music in the early years, but Hastings worked with the JSO in 2007 to consolidate the school’s piano program with the Community Music School to avoid duplication of efforts.) Since then, Hastings and Ivkovich have worked together on the All Things Irish Family Festival at JSO in March and the Annual Fairy Festival at JSA in April. Hastings suggested that the groups also do collaborative marketing, because they share common audiences and missions. The result, Hastings said, is that more children are getting involved in the arts, and both groups have benefited by sharing costs and resources.“We are a resource for the community,” Hastings said. “People want to live, work and play in a vibrant community, and the arts are an essential element to create that environment. Jackson School of the Arts
plants the seed for culture to grow.”