“It takes a village to raise a child,” says Sharonica Hardin, principal of Adams Elementary, a neighborhood school serving St. Louis’ Forest Park Southeast. “And COCA [the Center of Creative Arts] is part of our village.”
Adams Elementary dates to the late 1800s, but closed in the mid-1980s when school district administrators decided not to renovate the building. “At that point, the Forest Park Southeast residents became very involved,” Hardin says. “They understood that in order to redevelop and revitalize their neighborhood, there needed to be a good school.” It took 10 years and the support of nearby Washington University to convince the Board of Education to reopen Adams Elementary, but it finally happened in 2001.
The school’s 400 K-5 students “have multiple needs, and they need various outlets to succeed,” Hardin says, and COCA’s Urban Arts outreach program has been an invaluable partner. “What COCA provides is realistic, hands-on, practical, and meaningful experiences for our children through the arts, and not just singing, dancing, drumming, and painting, but also it’s intertwined and integrated to the educational program to help our students succeed academically.”
“Our mission is really tied to serving the entire community,” says COCA Director Stephanie Riven. Founded in 1986, this multidisciplinary arts organization provides classes and performances for all ages, both at its main facility and in schools across the St. Louis area. COCA’s nationally recognized Urban Arts program, designed to reach children who otherwise would have no access to arts programs, provides arts instruction, performances, workshops, and residencies in schools and at after-school and summer programs. The programming is provided at no cost to participants and is funded by national grants and local community donations.
Diadie Bathily, COCA’s West African dancer-in-residence (featured in Program 4 of Art to Heart), is one of several artists who teach classes at Adams Elementary. There’s also a storyteller, a jazz dancer, and a glass artist. The arts classes give students meaningful opportunities to gain self-confidence and to express themselves in a nurturing environment, Hardin says. They also serve as a haven from academic struggles and societal problems. “The classes are a major outlet for them, and it really helps to enable them to give their best.”
Bathily agrees. “If you want to give a good shape to your tree in your garden, you have to give the right care and direction. You take care of it, [and] it’s going to grow nicely, the way you want. The kids are like that. Their minds and bodies are fresh. These kids can do anything.”
Keys to Success
In discussing artist residencies with the Center of Creative Arts, Adams Elementary principal Sharonaka Hardin kept student success at the forefront of conversations. I asked, “How is this going to impact student achievement?”
What the school has found, Hardin says, is that the arts programs have enhanced self-esteem and brought out talents and strengths that had previously gone unrecognized. “The students are just brought to life in a different way, so it encourages them to also succeed academically.”