Getting young people into the arts

Art Teens, ae

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The Art Conservatory for Teens (ACT) is striving to get young people involved in the arts so they can better themselves and the community. Co-founded by Alex Harris and Herbert Murphy, Sr., the organization has been giving the area’s youth a chance to shine in the spotlight since 2009.

Alex Harris, Co-founder of ACT

Alex Harris, Co-founder of ACT

Harris, a recording artist, producer, songwriter and performer, has had a long career in the entertainment industry. His hit release “Hope For Us” climbed all the way to number one on the American Blues Network charts. In his travels throughout the world, he would not only perform but speak to young people of various ages about empowering themselves within their communities.

“I would see the motivation and the inspiration, but I wanted to see the sustainability of what I was doing,” Harris remarked. “When I took a brief sabbatical from my last international tour in South Korea, I moved to Florida to more fully develop this concept I’d been doing, which is about developing a sense of self-worth through an arts platform and preparing kids for life and careers.”

After developing his arts program initially for the Boys and Girls Clubs in St. Pete, Harris went independent and launched ACT. The diverse programs include offerings in music, acting, visual arts, crafts and even in behind-the-scenes offerings such as cinematography, lighting and audio.

Theatrical music productions have included “Motown to Midtown,” a celebration of soul music history; the tribute “A Night at the Cotton Club” and “Shout St. Pete Shout!”

“It’s a celebration of what the gospel genre contributed to the spiritual enlightenment to humanity,” Harris said, “from Negro spirituals to what we call contemporary gospel today.”

These shows have been performed at such venues as the Palladium, the Mahaffey Theater, Harbor Hall at USF St. Pete, American Stage and Studio@620.  Upcoming shows include a holiday gala and a soul music tribute.

“Hopefully we’ll have some really key people involved in working with our students both locally and on a national level,” Harris said.

Other ACT programs include Teen Empower Today, which raises awareness about healthy living and is not just about eating habits and exercise, but “helps empower kids to leadership as well,” Harris stated. Also, the Teen Arts Culture and Careers Festival introduces students to various careers in arts and gives them the chance to experience higher education and career opportunities through the various workshops. ACT is always willing to do what it can to assist in helping students academically.

“We seek to connect them with resources in the community as it relates to tutoring if they need that,” Harris affirmed. “We also seek to connect them with financial resources and scholarships as well to ensure that they have not just an opportunity but a bridge to an opportunity. That’s what I see is a great need today—not so much the opportunity but the bridges that need to be created, and the coaching across the bridge!”

ACT is going into its sixth year and Harris said participation in the programs has very much increased since its beginnings. Between the in-school service which is partnered with the University Preparatory Academy and the out-of-school service which is partnered with the City of St. Petersburg at the Enoch Davis Center, there are several hundred kids that are taking advantage of all that ACT has to offer.

“Right now we’re serving every week a little over 500 students!” Harris said.

He added that he is excited about the newest community partner, University Preparatory Academy, which has provided an opportunity for ACT to serve more of the students in the Arts Education and Culture Enrichment introductory classes during school hours.

“Each month there is an in-school recital for the students to showcase their learnings to their peers,” Harris explained. “The principal, Mr. Darius Adamson, and his administration have been nothing less than excellent in working hard to connect the young people of our community with resources that will offer a great platform to each student of University Prep Academy to reach his or her fullest potential.”

Harris noted that although the organization has a unique focus on the underserved and the at-risk population, it reaches out to students of all backgrounds.

“We have several initiatives that are certainly inclusive of all kids, because we see there is a need for what we do for all children,” he said.

Children in grades K-12 may join ACT. The programs run from September through May, though next year the organization plans to re-launch its summer academy, which may include a film academy. Harris noted that it is an ongoing application process.

“Students can join in September, they can join in January,” he explained, “and of course everyone has equal opportunity to audition for parts for our major productions.”

Harris asserted that young people who participate in the arts tend to perform better at school and become very productive in careers. Sometimes, he admitted, arts participation can be a stepping board to a different type of career.

“We’ve offered one-on-one direction in career preparation,” he stated. “Our students may have started with a strong interest in the arts but we’ve seen that develop into an interest in psychology or physiology, so it’s not limited. About 75 percent of our students are interested in the entertainment industry, and the other 25 percent are definitely interested in other areas but would like to maintain a higher appreciation of the arts.”

Harris said all of the program instructors are professionals with various accolades, and he boasted a 100 percent graduation rate to date for students at their respective schools.

“All the students that we have touched and mentored with our program through their middle school and high school years,” he explained, “have graduated from high school and have enrolled in some higher education institution.”

Harris asserted that ACT doesn’t just necessarily prepare young people for the entertainment industry, but prepares them for life and said the organization is always looking for volunteers and resources in the community.

“We want it to become something that’s sustainable in the community,” he stated, “so we’re looking for more community partners to advance the opportunity for the kids. It’s all about the kids, 100 percent.”

Contact The Arts Conservatory for Teens by calling (727) 346-8223 or visit act1midtown.org.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger

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