Whether it’s your first day of high school, first day of college or first day back to finish your degree, the first day of school can be one of the most important of the year. After all, an education is probably the most powerful thing you can have.
It gives you a career.
It determines how much money you will make.
It provides knowledge of the history and culture of the world around you. With that knowledge comes power — the power to enter the world and grab your aspirations by the horns.
Another summer is drawing to an end. Teachers and students are heading back to school, a school that may be offering only the core classes an other required elements. The arts may have taken the back burner due to constant budget cuts.
A lack of funding has been plaguing the public school system for years ever since Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett slashed nearly $1 billion in 2011. The slashing created a funding crisis that is deepens every year, and programs geared toward the arts are taking the hit. Schools throughout the United States are even starting to adopt four-day school weeks and pay-to-ride school bus transportation to account for the cuts in funding.
Despite the decrease in government funding, teachers of the arts throughout the area are doing their best to provide students with the best creative education they can with the resources they have.
The power of ‘Powell’
“People underestimate the power of the arts,” said Patricia Powell of Mid Valley Secondary Center in Throop. “There’s a lot of hard work and detail that goes into it.”
While people may underestimate the power of the arts, nobody seems to underestimate the power of Patricia Powell, who has served as the head of Mid Valley’s high school drama club for 28 years.
Michael McIlwee, a 2008 graduate of Mid Valley, considers himself lucky to have had Powell as a drama club director.
“What I took away from my time with her and being in the drama club was developing a strong sense of self and of my dreams,” said McIlwee, now an actor pursuing work in Hollywood, California.
The skills developed while being involved in the arts benefit many areas of a person’s life including emotionally, intellectually and socially, according to McIlwee.
“Through these programs I have watched many students, including myself, conquer fears, insecurities and personal struggles that normally go unaddressed, especially in a small town where it’s easy to feel alone,” McIlwee said.
Marja Bjornstad is a senior at Mid Valley. She said her grades drastically improved after joining Powell’s drama club. Not only did she grow as a drama student, she grew as an academic student as well.
“Once I joined the drama club, I met some extremely wonderful people who are dedicated to the arts and their academics. When I realized how much I admired them, I quickly renewed my efforts to be a successful student,” Bjornstad said.
The generations of respect and praise toward Powell is well deserved. She built Mid Valley’s drama club from the ground up.
When Powell started the drama club nearly 30 years ago, there was no budget.
“We relied on fundraisers,” said Powell, who recalled selling oranges in the early days of her career to help fund a play.
“As the years went by, we raised more and more money and the productions got better and better.”
Once the school took notice of her success with the students and bringing the community together, Powell’s program started to be taken seriously.
“The school started giving the club $5,000 a year straight from the principal’s fund,” Powell said .
While $5,000 may sound like a great deal of money, producing a school play is costly.
“The right’s to a musical is roughly $2,600,” Powell said “Just the rights to do a play is more than half of our budget.”
The budget doesn’t even hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to maintenance of the school’s stage. The auditorium has the same curtains and same lighting since 1969.
“The only thing that has been replaced on our stage in the past 40 years is light bulbs,” Powell said.
Though Powell may wish the circumstances were different when it comes to funding, she makes the best out of it.
“We still have a boy’s club,” she said.
Powell, said many former high school sports players run the school’s administration and show their support in theory, which is “still not the same.”
“We are very lucky, however, to have a new superintendent, Jim Tolerico, who is very supportive of the arts,” Powell said.
As much as she would appreciate more funding, she understands that it is not economically responsible.
“How do you ask parents to dish out more money to put on a play when they are struggling to pay their own bills and put food on the table?” Powell asked.
Instead of arguing for more money, Powell teaches her students to be resourceful and earn it.
“Our students get a feel of everything when it comes to putting together a production from making the tickets to selling them at the door,” Powell said.
Powell’s students even handle the budget.
“Having such a hands-on role with the production of a show teaches the students very valuable life skills including advertising, math, public speaking, memorization, literature and finance,” said Powell.
While funding may be cut, with the hard work and dedication from Powell, Mid Valley’s drama club is now under budget moving forward with the 2014-2015 school year.
While high school students are learning from their teachers, North Pocono High School theater teacher Geri Featherby learned a lesson in the power of the arts from her students.
“In 2012 I had the pleasure of having three students who varied in range on the autistic spectrum in my acting class,” Featherby said.
When the TSS workers that accompanied them each day to her class began to notice an incredible change in their communication skills, Featherby was inspired to start a program catered to the autistic community.
“With the support and encouragement of a parent, I created U-Aut-2-Act as a trial summer camp in the summer of 2012,” Feathery said.
With the help from a Culture and Arts grant from Lackawanna County and support from Dunmore and North Pocono Rotary Clubs, Featherby has been able to carry on the program held at the Arabesque Dance Studio in Moscow.
“U-Aut-2-Act creates the opportunity for youth and adults on the autism spectrum to develop communication skills and provide an extraordinary outlet of expression where their abilities shine,” Featherby said.
The autism acting school validates that everyone excels from learning the craft of theater, Featherby said.
“Much of the time, those with autism are encouraged to change or reduce their behavior or patterns. The theater approach accepts them for how they are and works to use it in the improvisational scene or moment. It is a space where they get to be themselves,” Featherby said.
Art in education
To Scranton High School art teacher Maria Lozada, the power of art is that “it creates beauty all around you.”
Lozada has extensive experience at teaching art in the Scranton school district. She is also proving that arts in schools is more than an extracurricular activity that makes students feel good about themselves.
She is combining art with education for something that has never been done in a high school before.
“What we are doing is collaborating art with the sciences so students can use both sides of their brain while creating art.”
Thanks to a donation from Central Scranton High School’s class of 1963, Scranton High School has $4,000 toward building a nature lab.
“Different departments in the school made proposals explaining what they would do with the donation, and the art program won,” Lozada said.
Patterned after the Edna St. Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design, Lozada’s alma mater, Scranton High School’s nature lab will allow the students to learn the technologies of using dissecting microscopes to apply the accurate rendering of any part of nature with art. The nature lab will consist of microscopes, taxidermy animals, bones, seashells and other aspects of nature, Lozada said.
“When you draw from life we are better able to look at it and compare it to the quality,” Lozada said.
“The nature lab that ours will be modeled after is the same nature lab that Chris Van Allsburg used as inspiration to illustrate the animals in the book ‘Jumanji’,” Lozada said.
The natures lab is named in honor of Lois Ann Dreater, a former Scranton school district art teacher and Lozada’s sister. Aiming for a 2015-16 school year opening of the lab, Lozada said she is confident she’ll come up with the funds needed to put the finishing touches in the lab within the time frame.
“The more challenging it is, the more determined I am,” she said.
Lozada said she makes the best of a situation. She knows how to stretch a dollar, or, not ue one, to help broaden her students knowledge of the arts.
“I never look at the resources I don’t have,” she said. “While funding doesn’t allow us to visit art schools with my students, because busses are expensive, I invite college reps to visit us.”
Getting creative is what art is all about, according to Lozada.
“Art is a journey of exploration,” she said. “I encourage my students to have their own creative experience and that is why I am so passionate about art.”
That passion is what motivates art teachers throughout NEPA to provide the best education for the personal growth and development of their students and proves the arts to be so powerful.
Despite sufficient government funding, Patricia Powell, Geri Featherby and Maria Lozada stand among the teachers that combine their dwindling resources with artistic poise and creativity to change the lives of the next generation.