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AmeriCorps takes Philly's artist-in-schools program national

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

Updated: Tuesday, September 12, 2017, 5:46 AM

ArtistYear Fellow Aqil Rogers explains to Harrity School students in West Philadelphia how to assemble a contact microphone from component parts.

With major new funding from a federal agency in hand, a Philadelphia service group in the arts is going national.

ArtistYear has been operating since 2014, placing a few recent college graduates into Philadelphia schools each year as teaching fellows. This year, the program will expand to 25 full-time fellows who will teach music, art, dance, creative writing, and media arts in low-income schools in Queens, N.Y., and Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, as well as Philadelphia.

A big boost to the program comes through AmeriCorps, part of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which has awarded ArtistYear a three-year, $1.45 million grant and extended certain benefits to the teaching fellows.

Previously, the local program received a $1 million donation in 2016 from H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, and this year has drawn support from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

The new funding “validates us and gives us an opportunity to really step back and think strategically,” said ArtistYear CEO and cofounder Margo Drakos, “about how we help to grow and measure our impact — obviously on our [fellows], but also students and the communities they are reaching.”

The grant is a first for AmeriCorps. “This is the first time there’s been a program that allows artists to dedicate a year of service to their country,” said AmeriCorps spokeswoman Samantha Jo Warfield, citing the innovative model as one criterion for the award.

Service-year programs for college graduates are common — to build English-language curriculum in Tonga, or to work on food-justice issues in Milwaukee. But ArtistYear may be unique. Its leaders call it the “first organization dedicated to national service through the arts.”

This school year in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, storyteller and improviser Jill M. Pullara will put to use skills she learned earning an MFA in writing from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Will Brobston, a guitarist and composer armed with a master’s degree from the University of Denver, goes west to the Colorado towns of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Basalt.

ArtistYear Fellow Aqil Rogers shows students Makya Nobles, center, and Savannah Smalley, right how to strip insulation from a wire in the process of making a contact microphone. Once complete the students tapped on the desk using their hands and other implements creating sounds that the microphone then picked up and amplified. The amplified sounds were turned into improvised songs. The students attend Mastery Charter's Harrity School in West Philadelphia. (Jonathan Wilson / For the Inquirer)

In Philadelphia, Aqil Rogers, a metal sculptor and designer who grew up in Lansdowne, is teaching at Mastery Charter Harrity Upper School at 56th and Christian Streets.

“What I’ll be doing is helping them create a maker space,” said Rogers, 22, a Drexel University graduate whose senior thesis was Empowering Underserved High-Schoolers to Engage in Design/Maker Education through Hip-Hop and DIY Electronics. “The goal is to bring more fabrication and project learning into the rich culture they already have.” He’s starting with paper crafts and cardboard. “We’ll work our way to electronics, robotics, lots of different sewing techniques — anything that can be done with hands, I suppose, will be learned at some point. And a lot of design-thinking work, which I think is critical.”

In addition to Mastery Charter, ArtistYear has fellows in 11 other elementary, middle, and high schools in the School District of Philadelphia.

In choosing fellows, the group wants artists who see teaching not merely as a space filler, but as a calling. “What we’re looking for is what kind of work experience they have that makes them think they are ready for a year of service, and that they want this as a piece of their career,” says ArtistYear chief program officer Christine Witkowski.

Fellows receive a $21,000 stipend, health care, and professional training. The affiliation with AmeriCorps also gives them a cash award that may be applied to past or future educational expenses, and student loan forbearance during the service year. The program began as a pilot at the Curtis Institute of Music in 2014 with three alums teaching music in area schools, but has since grown to encompass all the arts and is now its own separate nonprofit organization.

This year, 5,000 students will be served nationally. The goal is to have arts fellows teaching in all 50 states.

ArtistYear cofounder Elizabeth Warshawer, a Philadelphia management consultant, says the intent is to grow thoughtfully while not sacrificing the quality of the work. “AmeriCorps funding has been instrumental in our recent expansion,” she said. “As we replicate and scale the program, we want to ensure that we expand responsibly and in a sustainable way, both within our current locations and as we add new locations.”

Drakos says the intent is not for teaching fellows to be thought of as substitutes for full-time arts instruction, but as complements — and stimulus for the development of further arts programs. “There are amazing arts teachers and educators in so many of our schools,” she says. But the idea is “that the school sees the positive impact on the social and academic development, and on the school’s culture and climate, and the value of that going forward.”

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

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