It seems arts budgets are always at a real risk of being cut in public education, but Augusta has a gem of a school that helps keep creative outlets a vital part of students’ lives.
But as valuable as that is, the school means even more to the community.
The Jessye Norman School of the Arts, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this past year, aims to “develop students to become creative, caring, visionary, responsible citizens through the transformative power of the arts.” Kids there are learning dance, drama, music and even photojournalism — picking up valuable skills like graphic artistry and photography, which they eventually might use in their careers once they reach the grown-up world.
Kids learn these skills in the school’s after-school, homeschool and summer camp programs (the after-school and summer camp programs are completely free).
But the school, housed in a building at Eighth and Greene streets in downtown Augusta, is a place that the whole community can use. It’s a space that organizations (like the Augusta Jr. Players) can rent for their own purposes.
The school also regularly holds classes for adults, including writing classes, dance classes, vocal lessons — and even weekly guitar lessons given by local music legend Keith Jenkins, former leader of the James Brown Band. Those group lessons are held at 6 p.m. Thursdays, for a $5 donation.
“Our after-school program and our summer camp programs are completely free, and that’s about 85 percent of our budget,” said the school’s Executive Director Gary Dennis, who has been with the nonprofit organization since he started as a substitute drama teacher in 2006. “The rest of our programming is really trying to be good stewards of an 18,000-square-foot building, that we use in a narrow ribbon of time, so the idea was to create as much community programming as we could. Like, we’ve got Keith Jenkins, the guitarist, giving group lessons. It’s a $5 donation to take a guitar lesson from the former leader of the James Brown Band. So, we’re not making any money on that.”
One of the newer features at the school is the art garden, which opened earlier this year. Because the school is all about the arts, art has been incorporated into this garden outside the building, growing crops like strawberries, melons, tomatoes, basil, oregano and more. It’s accented with the backdrop of a beautiful, 32-foot-tall mural by local artist Jay Jacobs — he said the mural is meant to capture the spirit of the school’s namesake, opera singer Jessye Norman, and he completed the huge painting after he read her memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!”
The art garden started with a local Eagle Scout project, when at first, vertical gardens and raised-bed gardens were installed.
“At that point, we said, ‘We’ve got a great opportunity here … gardening is kind of out of the scope of our mission,” Dennis said. “So if we’re gonna do this, we’ll need to incorporate the arts into it somehow. So we said we’d do an art garden — we’d do movies against the wall, build a stage out here so we can have an outdoor venue for the performers and really focus on bringing the arts outside. So the photography students could come out here and practice using their macro lenses. … We really hope for the use of (the garden) to be organic, to have somebody tell me, ‘Hey, we want to use your space,’ and then build an event from the ground up.”
Part of the garden’s use is also to create nutritional snacks for the students at the school. And Dennis said he wants the community to feel welcome to take from the garden.
“We used to keep rosemary in the three planters in front of the building, and nothing tickled me more than seeing somebody walk down the street, pull off a few sprigs of rosemary and then stick it in their purse and keep going,” he said. “I mean, that’s awesome, and I hope the same thing happens here. I hope people come by and take from our garden.”
Along with educating kids and adults in the community, the school also has an art gallery, the Ann & Ellis Johnson Gallery of Art. This gallery regularly shows professional art, as well as college and high school student exhibits. Earlier this year, the gallery held a reception and show for the after-school program’s “Transform” exhibit.
Photojournalism teacher Sarah Pacetti explained that the students were “identifying things about the world that they felt needed to change, and what can they personally do to effect positive change; they’re reaching out and saying, ‘here’s something I’d like to see different in the world.’”
One of those students was 15-year-old Marco Robinson, who did his photography project on the subject of school shootings.
“I asked a group of kids to sit at a table to seem like they were at school, and the school shooter’s coming through the door,” Robinson said. “It was pretend, like a microphone pretend gun. I used a gradient tool to make it seem like it was a suspense in the picture.”
When asked what he thought could be done to help lessen the occurrence of school shootings, one of the things he said was for there to be less hostility between students and teachers.
“Sometimes the teachers, they get stuff wrong, even though the student would be right — they would blame the student for being wrong,” he said.
Other students who worked on projects in that exhibit touched on topics like broken marriages, women’s freedom of speech and race relations.
The teachers that the Jessye Norman School hires tend to have world-class qualifications — and therefore, they often go on to do bigger things. Although the school staff feels bittersweet about their absence, Dennis said it’s a good problem to have.
“It’s pretty cool when you say your ex-faculty members are (gospel singer) Trey McLaughlin and Sharon Mayfield (a dance teacher who formerly worked with the Garth Fagan Dance group) and (AU alumnus and current New England Conservatory student) Daon Drisdom,” he said. “And (jazz artist and Garden City Jazz founder) Karen Gordon. So it’s not so bad, really.”
One of the most visible projects this year has been the painted-pianos project that’s been seen around town — the first ones were outside of the school. Because the school believes in paying artists, that project was funded by a $10,000 grant.
In all, the school’s current operating budget is $381,000, with 80 to 85 percent of that funding the free after-school and summer camp programs. Most of their students come from an economically disadvantaged demographic, so it’s important that the programs be kept free.
The community has a chance to financially support the school, with the annual benefit concert coming up at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, at Augusta University’s Maxwell Theatre. General admission tickets cost $40 ($25 for students with ID), and this year’s lineup includes sopranos Indra Thomas and Andrea Edith Moore, baritone Tamal Boore, accompanist Rosalyn Floyd, pianist Susan Zhang, as well as the Jessye Norman School Singers and Dancers, students of the school who will be showcasing the talents they’ve developed.
“The Jessye Norman School of the Arts Annual Benefit Concert does so much more than just raise money for an after-school arts and education program,” Dennis said in a news release. “It also provides an invaluable opportunity for our children and our local artists and teachers to gain exposure, and to have the opportunity to work with some of the best performers in the world.”
Jessye Norman School of the Arts Benefit Concert
AU’s Maxwell Theatre
4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18
$40, general admission; $25, students with ID.
706-722-8341 or jessyenormanschool.org
The Jessye Norman School of the Arts is now taking applications for the free after-school program’s spring semester. To find out more and how to qualify, visit jessyenormanschool.org/student-applications.