In one PS 125 classroom, kindergarteners are making puppets with paper bags as bodies and cut-out pieces of brown, yellow, and red construction paper as ears and tongues. In another room, special education students are drawing the faces of women in their lives with crayons and gluing on googly eyes.
Although the school, located at 123rd Street and Amsterdam, lost its arts program just a year ago, on Friday afternoons it is revived by the members of Artists Reaching Out, a volunteer arts organization that is part of an effort to provide arts education for schools with limited resources.
Last Friday, ARO initiated its first series of after-school classes at PS 125.
With an increased focus on standardized tests due to legislature like “No Child Left Behind,” public schools facing budget cuts tend to part with their arts programs first. This is what happened with PS 125.
“That’s the atmosphere right now, and the thing is that people don’t think to the test,” Emily Handsman, BC ’12 and a coordinator of ARO, said. “You should be encouraged to think creatively and really be allowed to express yourself,” she continued. This is precisely the goal of ARO—to foster creativity as a form self-expression in students who would otherwise not have this opportunity.
After a year of major administrative changes, PS 125 is now run by Principal Reginald Higgins, who understands the importance of an arts education, according to ARO coordinators. At the start of this school year, Higgins asked ARO to come during school hours. “He believes in its value to students as all of us do,” Sam Mickel, CC ’14 and a coordinator of ARO, said.
Volunteers teach many different forms of art—visual art, music, drama, creative writing, and dance. These Columbia and Barnard students typically structure their classes around a theme, such as winter. Students in each grade level are then asked to respond to the theme in different ways. One class will write winter haikus. Another class will learn a snowfall dance.
But ARO coordinators say that they’re trying to make it more relevant to their students lives and education. With last month being Black History Month, ARO volunteers centered the activities on famous African-Americans, such as painter and football player Ernie Barnes and writer Langston Hughes. With March being Women’s History Month, the focus will be on famous and important women in the children’s lives.
There are now more than 50 volunteers who consistently attend what are now three programs: the in-school and after-school program at PS 125 and the after-school program at Future Leaders Institute, a charter school located on 122nd Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.
“It’s really exciting to be able to bring art,” Miriam Rosen, CC ’15 and a coordinator of ARO, said. She added that the ARO team includes “students at Columbia who are really interested in the arts and from diverse backgrounds—music, drama, vocal. We all come together, and then we go to the school, and you meet really cool people in the program, and the students are great at PS 125 and FLI. It’s the highlight of their day. It makes it really rewarding.”
Coordinators said that they hope ARO can continue to expand in the model of other youth programs in Community Impact, citing groups like Peace by P.E.A.C.E. and America Reads.
“We’re not looking for people who are the most talented artists ever. We are looking for people who are really enthusiastic about children, about art, about teaching art to children, about having fun and being positive,” Handsman said.
ARO also looks for long-term volunteers who can develop strong bonds with the students they work with.
“Especially for returning sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the students get so excited to see the volunteers again, just because they love them and they have a great time,” Rosen said.