In Year of Dashed Expectations, Buoying Artists and Educators


An initiative provides cultural programming to the city’s 1,800 public schools and supports arts organizations in the process.

By Sara Aridi

When the coronavirus pandemic brought New York City to a standstill, New York Community Trust, a foundation that supports local nonprofits, had many concerns.

Among them was that an aggressive response to the virus would spell a blow to the economy — and also to public schools, which had a record $447 million investment in arts education for the 2018-19 school year.

When the city announced its 2021 budget in April, cuts included a $15.5 million reduction for the Education Department’s planned $23 million to expand arts education.

To help fill that gap, Leigh Ross, a program officer at New York Community Trust, reached out to a team at the department’s Office of Arts and Special Projects. Together, they outlined a plan to provide free and remote arts programming to New York City’s 1,800 public schools — the country’s largest school system.

“We created the project to respond to what we saw as an emergency in arts education,” Ms. Ross said. “But I think it’s turned into something that could be used and could be benefiting kids for years to come.”

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New York Community Trust, one of 10 organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, allocated a $680,000 grant to the project, most of which is funding four artistic nonprofits that are crafting curriculums under specific disciplines: Carnegie Hall for music, 92nd Street Y for dance, Roundabout Theater Company for theater and Studio in a School for fine arts.

Maria Palma, the deputy director of the Office of Arts and Special Projects, said that delivering high-quality cultural education is often made possible by connecting students with professional artists.

“It really does take a village for us to educate our children,” she said. “This grant was really just in time.”

The programming is tailored for kindergarten through 12th grade and, starting this month, will gradually be uploaded to an online portal administered by the Department of Education, making it available to the city’s roughly 75,000 teachers. It amounts to more than 170 hours of instruction, including videos, as well resources to help teachers — and caregivers who have had to take on the roles of teachers — use the lesson plans in a variety of settings.

The Dance Education Laboratory at 92nd Street Y is highlighting dance traditions in New York City, with a focus on “three groups of people who have been marginalized, ignored or completely decimated from American history books,” said Ann Biddle, a founder of the laboratory. Its modules will look at Native American dance and culture, the evolution of tap dance in New York and the work of the choreographer H.T. Chen, which explores Chinese-American history.

While teaching an inherently physical art form through a screen can be challenging, Erin Lally, the director of the Dance Education Laboratory, believes the impact of the programming will overcome that barrier.

“As soon as you are engaging children in an embodied way,” she said, “they are hooked.”

Theater is also typically a live collaboration. That being ruled out during the pandemic, Roundabout created lessons by focusing on theatrical design and the use of voice.

Students will be encouraged to create their own pieces — inspired by personal and social issues of importance to them — and perform them. Roundabout wants to emphasize the physical voice, said LaTonya Borsay, a master teaching artist at the theater company, as well as “the voice in terms of perspective and point of view.”

The initiative is designed to support multiple beneficiaries: the teachers, their students, the nonprofits and other collaborators, like videographers and artists, who were employed to help shape the content.

Paul Brewster McGinley, the director of teaching and learning at Roundabout, emphasized that teachers have been “the unsung heroes” of the pandemic response. “Our overall goal here is to provide resources for those educators to lighten the load.”

Ms. Ross, of New York Community Trust, believes children need the arts now more than ever. “Many young people are feeling isolated,” she said. “When kids engage in the arts, they have opportunities to express themselves, to connect with other people.”

That healing ability has been a key motivator for Mylo Martinez.

About a year ago, Mr. Martinez, 19, felt like he had come up against a wall. He had dropped out of a community college in East Los Angeles, where he was studying animation, and had lost his part-time job as a fast-food worker. He also learned he was going to be evicted.

Ready for a change, in January, Mr. Martinez packed and boarded a Greyhound bus to New York.

“I just felt like there was really nothing to lose,” he said.

His dreams of becoming an animator took a back seat to his desire for a fresh start. “I want to develop this whole new person,” he recalled thinking, “even if that means that I have to kill something that I genuinely love to do.”

Mr. Martinez entered the city’s shelter system and, soon after, discovered an I.T. job-training program run by Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, a beneficiary agency of Community Service Society, another organization supported by The Fund.

The program was scheduled to begin in March, but it was postponed after the city went under lockdown. In May, Mr. Martinez started classes virtually. Community Service Society used roughly $220 from The Fund to buy him a tablet and other supplies he needed for his coursework. He is also using the tablet to document his journey of self-discovery through cartooning, capturing who he was and envisioning who he aspires to be.

Mr. Martinez graduated from the program in October and is now studying for certification exams and preparing to re-enter the work force.

Though he often puts himself down, Mr. Martinez said, he is also his main source of inspiration: He creates art to find “value in myself.”

Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online or with a check.

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