Heading into the second full school year during a global pandemic, many changes have been made to keep students and educators safe as they return to in-person learning. The Gazette spoke with the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts, JP KidsArts, and the Tony Williams Dance School to hear how they are all adapting to COVID guidelines while still providing critical outlets for kids to express themselves artistically.
Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts
The Gazette spoke with the Eliot School’s Executive Director, Abigail Norman, and new Associate Director, Alison Croney Moses, to learn more about how the Eliot School has adapted to the changing COVID-19 pandemic while still being able to serve its students.
Norma said that this summer was “very exciting,” as it was the first time the school had reopened in person. Students participated in activities outdoors under colorful tent canopies in the school yard for seven weeks of outdoor classes.
“It was full and it was a very, very happy place,” she said. But heading into the fall, the school is “facing a different challenge brining indoor safety.”
Croney Moses added that the school received funds from the Boston Private Industry Council to hire more students than in the past through the city’s Successlink Youth Engagement and Employment program. Additionally, students in the TeenBridge program were able to work both inside and outside over the summer.
“This year was our first year that we have a set of graduating seniors” from the TeenBridge program, Croney Moses said, all of which moved on to college this fall.
Eliot Schools BPS partnership program is also back this fall, beginning in eight Boston Public Schools (BPS). Croney Moses said that Eliot School “follows all the same guidelines as BPS teachers,” including vaccination and testing protocols. This program will serve about 1000 students to start, but the program is “quickly increasing” she said, though Eliot School is taking it slow to ensure proper protocols are always followed.
“Our teachers are so excited to be back in person,” she said, and “our students as well.” She said the students are “using art to re-regulate and get used to routines they haven’t been participating in. We’re really happy we can be there for our young people in this way.”
Norman added that “we’re so aware—on Zoom and coming back in person—what a critical role art plays I young people’s and all people’s outlet for expression and understanding and connection with others,” especially following the pandemic when kids were isolated from one another and the routines they were familiar with.
The Eliot School also hopes to “slowly reopen in person classes” at the schoolhouse sometime later this month, and they are “working on the logistics about how COVID protocols work with the registration process,” including showing proof of vaccination, Norman said.
She also said that local architect Ed Forte has created a map of all the classrooms to figure out how students could distance properly. Norman said that masks will be required indoors, and an air exchange system with air filtration has been installed in the school.
“We want to bring people in just little by little as we test out the safety and how it feels in the building,” Norman said. “It’s an exciting time,” but also “a little bit of a daunting time.”
Additionally, the Eliot School recently celebrated 10th year of its scholarship fund with an outdoor party last Sunday.
“Today, after 10 years, the fund was worth $473,400,” Norman said. “Over the course of that 10 years, we gave 991 classes for free to 243 scholarship recipients. It’s like an amazing accomplishment and something to celebrate.”
She thanked all those who have donated to help keep the school afloat during the challenging time of the pandemic. “Without those resources, we would not be where we are today,” she said. “We’re grateful to the entire community for stepping forward.”
Croney Moses added that she is also “grateful for the support and the opportunity to work with young people again. It’s been on my mind a lot about how much they need the arts.”
For more information about the Eliot School and its classes and programming, visit eliotschool.org.
“Our whole mission is empowering our communities through expressive arts programming,” Ray-Ray Farrrales, Executive Director of JP Kids Arts, told the Gazette. “We hire artists as teachers,” they said, and are “very proud of that fact.”
They said that JP KidsArts “started as a grassroots parent organization” after arts programs were increasingly cut from schools. In 1994, the organization was incorporated as a nonprofit, and continued to hire artists as teachers for its programming. The organization operates out of the First Church in Jamaica Plain on Eliot St.
“Something that drew me,” Farrales said, is that KidsArts is “creative with the classes that we offer.” These classes offer a place for kids “to really be themselves and play and be like friends,” they said.
“We serve kids from all different schools,” as well as homeschool families, Farrales added.
JP KidsArts also offers a summer program, which was virtual last year due to the pandemic. The organization also offered a “virtual learning help school” that started in January, whcih offered help for students who needed help with their virtual learning. The program ran from 8am to 3pm on school days, and there were also outdoor after school community workshops where kids could create art more safely in an outdoor setting.
Last summer, some outdoor activities were held such as drumming workshops and engineering projects that were created for entire families to participate In, they said.
“This year, we did an outdoor summer program,” Farrales said. “Every morning, we did art workshops either at the pond or the arboretum,” where there was “plenty of ventilation.”
Each Friday, a new play would be produced, and during the week, kids chose whether they wanted to be part of the drumming squad that provided music and sound effects, act in the play, or be part of the the set and costume design group.
“Every Friday, we showed off what the kids created and collaborated on together,” Farrales said.
As far as COVID precautions go, Farrales said that masks have been required both indoors and outdoors, and kids have been very cooperative. A HEPA filter was installed in the space at the First Church, and most activities are done outside “except in extreme inclement weather,” they said.
“It was a process; we really learned a lot from our virtual school being open.”
This year for the after school program, there are only 40 kids as opposed to the typical 55, and “we have waitlists for pretty much every day except Friday.”
As part of the afterschool program, kids are offered “free choice time,” a snack, homework time, community circle time, and classes that they choose that are led by artists, Farrales said. Some of the options include a clothing DIY class, silent movies, and songwriting for beginners, just to name a few.
The after school program is offered to students ages five to 14, including a middle school program, which is “more of a leadership alumni program” that is “youth led,” Farrales said.
“The best thing is getting to see kids really be in their power,” Farrales said. “I think they’ve just been so restricted and not getting to be with their friends and see them,” and with this program, they can “sort of explore new things that they’re interested in and do it with artists that are stoked to be doing it with them.”
She said that kids being able to unwind after school and express themselves through an artistic outlet that they choose is extremely helpful to them.
“I’m so proud of our KidsArts team and the ways that we as a team have collaborated to transform and shift things as needed and really having a team that’s open minded to wanting to be what our families need and what we need, and also really shifting to how that needs to be done.”
KidsArts also has a Patreon called KidsArts CSA—Community Supported Art, where donations are collected to provide art supplies and projects to kids and families at their home. There is also a virtual team of teachers who taught classes online and created videos for kids to watch to create art projects.
Additionally, the organization’s outdoor Haunted House fundraiser will take place on Sunday, October 31, with the theme and storyline to be announced soon.
For more information on JP KidsArts, visit jpkidsarts.org.
Tony Williams Dance Center
Tony Williams Dance Center has been adapting to changing pandemic guidelines for more than a year, but classes are back in full swing after a summer of full dance camps, according to owner Tony Williams.
“We are around 60 percent of where we were pre-COVID,” Williams said of this season. “We were at around 35 to 40 percent of pre-COVID” this time last year.
He said that classes for kids under the age of nine are at full capacity, but the teen programs are down.
“We find most of the kids who are 12 and up have been vaccinated in my school,” Williams said. Staff and faculty are required to be vaccinated, he added.
Williams said he’d like to thank the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), who is the landlord of the Brewery Complex where the dance center is located.
“We wouldn’t be here today if they weren’t flexible with the rent during lockdown during spring and summer of 2020, and I’m really grateful to them for their consideration to renegotiate my terms of the lease that allowed us to continue on and because of that, it’s allowing us to grow back our business because we have a facility to make that happen,” he said.
The Urban Nutcracker is back on for this year, after a pandemic-related hiatus last year. Last year also marked the 20th anniversary of the show, which will be celebrated this year instead.
There will be nine shows at the Shubert Theater on Tremont St., from December 18 through December 26. Tickets can be purchased at https://urbannutcracker.com.
He said that children ages 12 and up are required to be vaccinated to be in the cast, and numbers were down during the auditions this year from a typical 100 to about 35, Williams said.
“As far as the adult cast, we’re doing something very interesting this year,” he said. The show will be “sharing dancers with the Brooklyn Ballet.” Williams said that seven dancers are commuting to Boston every weekend to rehearse the Urban Nutcracker.
He said that part of the reason he did this was to get more women of color into the show, as there is more diversity in the Brooklyn Ballet than there is in Boston.
Williams also spoke about the various grants that kept the dance center afloat over the past year and a half, including one from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, which has been funding the center’s apprenticeship program for the past three years, the City of Boston Cultural Council, as well as a state grant, and support from Phil and Liz Gross, who provided a “substantial grant to City Ballet of Boston, Williams’ professional dance company that is in residence at the Tony Williams Dance Center.
“These grants have really kept us afloat,” Williams said. “That’s been terrific.”
Williams said he is thrilled to see everyone so excited to be back dancing again.
“We’re excited about our 20th anniversary,” he said of the Urban Nutcracker. Some of the original cast from the 2001 production will return and perform in the show this year.
He said that he feels there are some parallels between that original show and the one to happen this year. The first production took place after 9/11, and Williams said that people came to three sold out shows at The Strand Theater, where there was “a lot of pent up stress that came out.”
He said that he expects a similar energy this year “post COVID.”
“There’s so much division going on with the politics in the country and the hate and the murder,” Williams said. He said he is “struck by the young kids. They have so much vim and vigor and love and energy and desire. Besides the young kids that I’m surrounded by, that not only the new generation coming up, but they are so mature and evolved than I was when I was a young kid.”
He said it is so important to “support their growth. I’m all about those families.”
For more information on Tony Williams Dace Center, visit tonywilliamsdancecenter.com.