Bryn Mawr: Raven Theatre's Arts Program Reaching CPS

Raven Theatre Photo by Monica CarterThe Raven Theatre's Take Flight program has been
a hit in Chicago Public Schools. (Photo by Monica Carter)

Bryn Mawr Stop IconBy Monica Carter
The Red Line Project

Posted: Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011

The Raven Theatre, located in the Edgewater neighborhood, is known for bringing communities on the city’s North Side together through the arts. And it is the dedication of the Raven’s continuous work throught the community that gave its ongoing education program, Take Flight, to garner attention from The National Endowment for the Arts.

Take Flight is an arts education program that works in conjunction with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) bringing the theatre to students who may not have access to study this art form otherwise.

According to Kelli Strickland, director of education and outreach at the Raven, Take Flight started back in 2000. It originated when Mike Menendi, the producing artistic director at the time, walked over to Hayt Elementary, 1518 West Granville Avenue, and informed the school’s administration that the theater was located across the street and were looking to collaborate with local schools.

Take Flight soon became a part of the Hayt Elementary after-school program. Children had an option to choose theatre as one of the topics of study. Since then, the program has grown and partners with seven local public schools in the Edgewater and Rogers Park area.

“A lot of organizations do this because CPS is a desert of cultural offerings,” Strickland said. “Many CPS schools rely on cultural organizations to provide some, if not all, of their arts education programming.”

Take Flight is taught by teaching artists who are also resident actors at the Raven, which is located at 6157 N. Clark St. The teaching artists go into area schools several times a week.

“What you’re trying to look at is what kind of impact [Take Flight has] on the culture of the classroom over the course of the school year,” Strickland said. “We get a lot of feedback back from classroom teachers, how the lessons of ensemble work in terms of collaboration, support, and respect play out during the whole school day in a particular classroom. In order to make that stuff stick there needs to be more opportunity to learn it.”

Take Flight serves 500 children a year in the classroom. Children from the second grade level up to high school who are in one of the partnering public schools can participate. All of the programs are taught by teaching artists who have a background in education and use all the formal tools of education, just like classroom teachers.

Peirce Elementary, according to Strickland, is one of the program’s success stories.

“We have a really enthusiastic response from the parents and the community Peirce. When the parents get involved in the schools that’s when you see commitment to the program take off. Parents are more likely to see the value in it in the interactions with their kids, where administrations are very test focused, score focused, culture of education right now.”

Take Flight was recently selected as one of the 76 non-profit organizations in the nation to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Take Flight received $12,200 for the 2011-2012 school year in part of NEA’s The Big Read program, designed to bring reading back to the center of American culture.

In collaboration with the NEA’s program, all of the Take Flight workshops are inspired by the book “Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories,” which is a collection of Mexican fiction published during the first half of the 20th century. Take Flight will be working on different adaptations of the stories.

Kelvin Roston Jr., the music director of the Take Flight program, was introduced to Take Flight through Anthony Peeples, the program’s artist educator, and immediately fell in love with the program.

“It affords children who wouldn’t have this opportunity the opportunity to do something in the arts,” Roston said.

Peeples looks at Take Flight as a place where children can assert themselves in a positive way, boosting their self-esteem, and having the ability to become an actor as an alternative to being on the street.

“We give them options to what is out there,” Roston said. “We try to encourage them towards thisoption.”

“I get several students who, when I’m walking around the neighborhood, will introduce me to their parents,” said Peeples. “The parents will say ‘My kid talks about all this stuff that you’ve been doing in the classroom and all the things they’ve learned in the program and I’ve noticed a difference in their confidence and just their ability to talk.’ We spend a lot of time with these children in the classroom and bringing our world to them. We are showing them our passion, what we love in the theatre world.”

A typical Take Flight program usually lasts throughout the school year. The program is designed around the age groups of the children, with younger children learning fables or writing their own works and performing them within the schools for their peers. The older students, typically high school age, learn an entire play and get the chance to perform it at the Raven.

After children finish a year in the Take Flight program they have options to join the ensemble through summer camps or other acting programs. While these other programs cost to attend, the Raven is committed to keeping children active in theatre after their turn in the Take Flight program is over. The Raven offers scholarships to families who may not have the financial means to pay for classes, but whose children would still like to continue studying theatre.

“We give them so many scholarships because we’d rather have them on the stage than on the street,” Peeples said.

Mechelle Moe, another teaching artists in the program, cites the benefit that Take Flight has had on the community as well.

“A lot of the times a community is not happy about these high schools being in their neighborhood and see the kids as trouble. [Take  Flight] is a way for the community to come and engage with the high school students in a different format and see them in a different light. I think that’s the best part of the program. It really makes an investment in the community. They get to come here at the end of their residency and perform on a professional stage. It also offers their community a way to see them differently.”

Take Flight is also branching out to the adults in the community. 2011 is the first year the program will go beyond teaching children and reach out to adults in need.

The Raven Theatre is teaming up with Centro Romero, 6216 North Clark St., an adult outreach program that serves the refugee immigrant population on Chicago’s northside. Centro Romero has been using the text  from the NEA’s Big Read program as part of their English classes. The adults will be performing an adaptation of some of the stories at the theater on Dec. 6.

The Take Flight program prides itself on being, what they refer to, a cultural anchor of the community, bringing people from different areas of the neighborhood together, and teaching them new skills to enrich their lives.

“This program is driven towards the process and the involvement,” Peeples said. “The process [the students] go through in coming together, they learn to become an ensemble. They’re coming together and working together for a common goal. They take that language of the theatre and apply to their lives.”

“I am a fan of this program because it does afford children who wouldn’t have this opportunity a chance to do something in the arts. It inundates them to a lot of artistic information they wouldn’t be privy to otherwise,” Roston said. “We afford them the opportunity to be here and see that it’s not uncool to do this. You can still be cool and do this.”

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