Monday, September 24, 2012

ASC, dropouts and a cure for cancer of the spirit

If you think it’s hopeless boosting the graduation rate or making sure disengaged, academically struggling kids living in poverty achieve and become productive citizens, talk to Bill Strickland. The philanthropist, author and MacArthur “Genius” grant awardee was one of those kids. He says it not only can happen, it is happening. He sees it in the five cities where his arts and technology centers operate. And he sees it happening here when such a center opens next month.

Strickland was in Charlotte Monday as the Arts & Science Council prepared to launch the innovative free out-of-school program for students in grades 9-12 in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Already 90 students at 17 different schools have expressed interest. The program will focus on digital photography and digital media art. It is a collaborative public/private partnership involving CMS, the county and other partners and participants. Mecklenburg County is investing $350,000 this fiscal year through its Community Services Grant Program and the ASC is raising money from private donors. Students from West Charlotte High, a Project L.I.F.T. school will have spots in the program. Judges in the juvenile court system also saw the program’s potential, and some clients will participate. 

The ASC has been working for six years to launch this effort. The program is modeled on Strickland’s work across the country through the Manchester Bidwell Corporation’s (Strickland is CEO) National Center for Arts & Technology. The program uses the arts – photography, pottery, etc. – and partnerships with local industries to get kids motivated and provide skills they can use. It’s that kind of work that earned Strickland his prestigious “genius” grant in 1996. Strickland who preaches the virtues of environment and motivated, committed adults in changing the lives of kids jokes that he got the grant for “figuring out the cure for cancer of the spirit.” It’s “flowers,” he said. “A beautiful environment, superior facility and motivated faculty” are key ingredients in saving the lives of “emotionally damaged kids,” he said, and that’s what most of the kids who need these programs are.

“Don’t give up on poor kids. They might end up being your commencement speaker,” he said. Strickland should know. That’s what he did.

“The only thing wrong with poor people is they don’t have money,” he said. “That is a curable condition.”

Strickland said people have to change the conversation about these kids and use innovative learning techniques to reach them. That’s what’s happening in the five cities – Grand Rapids, Cleveland, New Haven, San Francisco and Cincinnati – where these arts and technology centers are operating. The programs have waiting lists and have a more than 85 percent placement rate in jobs while in the program. An average of 96 percent graduated from high school, and 89 percent moved on to higher education.

Charlotte’s program will be in two contemporary studios at Spirit Square and provide students with community, workplace and higher education experiences. Strickland says it bodes well that “you have 90 kids signed up for something that doesn’t exist yet. That should tell you something about the pent up demand.” He also said we’ve got to start building schools that kids want to go to. It’s “commonsense,” he said. “In places of hope, kids have hope.” Simple and true.

Posted by Fannie Flono