As ACT turns seven, its impact on youth surges

L-R, Alex Harris, Mayor Kriseman and Herbert Murphy

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Alex Harris and Herbert Murphy launched the Arts Conservatory for Teens (ACT) in 2012 with a mission “to educate, empower, and enrich the lives of youth and teens in order to foster healthy, productive, and responsible citizens.”

Seven years later, ACT has continued to touch the lives of thousands of students and families, educators and community partners and boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate and 90 percent college placement rate for its involved youth.

On April 18, ACT kicked off its 2019 fundraising season at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg at its fifth annual Champions for ACT Breakfast, which featured current students, alums and artists from the ACT Artist Network.

“The fundraising season is all about raising funds for scholarships for students who are deserving but do not have the financial resources to access the opportunities that will help them excel academically and interpersonally,” shared co-founder Alex Harris.

Low to moderate income families makes up 80 percent of their student population. While the majority of students are in St. Pete, Harris said, “We have been able to impact other communities and neighborhoods, primarily through the Pinellas County School Board partnership and county commissioners, and their effort to make sure every child has an opportunity and no child is, literally, ‘left behind.’”

ACT has several flagship programs, including Teens Empowered Today, an afterschool program that focuses on high school graduation, college and or job readiness. The program has been an enormous success.

“We have over 60 young people in our workforce development, and we’re looking forward to expanding that because one of the challenges in underserved, low-income communities is the lack of exposure and experience,” noted Harris.

That lack of exposure to opportunities, said Harris, makes it difficult to land good jobs or even get on the path to obtaining a good job.

Taking a holistic approach to offer the most comprehensive support for teens, Harris added, “We focus on the art of leadership, the art of entrepreneurship, the art of money management and most importantly, the art of healthy living.”

Additionally, through ACT’s Professional Network Series, community members who are attorneys, business owners, in law enforcement, the healthcare, education or media industries come to speak to ACT students. Youths also get a chance to take part in field trips to visit and shadow jobs and careers onsite. For motivated students, internship opportunities and job placement may follow.

ACT’s other programs include the early morning Character Essentials (CE) initiative in middle school, which focuses on building character and providing tools to increase self-awareness that leads to better behavior. The CE initiative is active in Pinellas County Title 1 middle schools including John Hopkins, Tyrone, Oak Grove and Largo Middle.

Afterschool programs at recreation centers including Enoch Davis, Thomas “Jet” Jackson, Childs Park, Lake Vista or USF St. Pete Harbor Hall include the Arts Magnet Program, an afterschool program for youth who are interested in introductory and intermediate level dance, game coding, video production, DJ spinning, art, vocal and guitar or piano lessons.

There’s also The Young Artist Alliance, an advanced-level program designed for students who want to pursue a career in the performing or visual arts, offering intensive workshops, masterclasses and clinics after school and during the summer.

While ACT touches more than 700 annually through these weekly direct services programs, its high impact engagements including youth rallies, master classes and events such as their January performance of “Dream for America” reach beyond the students to family, friends and the community.

Engaging several thousand more community members annually, these high impact initiatives and events will allow ACT’s impacted county residents to number well over 5,000, said Harris.

ACT’s success stories are numerous – including alumni students who’ve gone on to attend prestigious programs at Carnegie Mellon, Boston Ballet and Boston Conservatory and Clark Atlanta University. Many are working professionally in the arts, engineering, television, advertising and education fields.

Some of those students returned for last week’s annual Champions for ACT Breakfast. Harris said their experiences offered a testimony to ACT’s excellence, showing of “what a community can do, develop or produce when we put our resources, energy and time into our young people.”

Harris’ dreams for the conservatory are big. “I want ACT to be the leading organization in the world for youth development in the creative space,” he shared, stating that the success of ACT is something to be celebrated by all in St. Petersburg.

“It wasn’t just Herbert and I that developed it alone, but the collective energy of the community. My dream is that we become a beacon to the world so people can say, ‘They did it in St. Petersburg, and we can do it here.’ Understanding the power of unity and how that can be displayed through the arts is the vision.”

To find out more about ACT or to support through a donation, visit artsconservatoryforteens.org.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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