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After 4 p.m., four days a week, the voices and laughter of students can still be heard through the halls of Lewton Elementary School in south Lansing. Thursday, despite the on-and-off showers, close to 40 students gathered outside under a pavilion rehearsing for a theatrical production of “The Aristocats.”
While about 20 students stand “onstage” rehearsing lines, one runs sound and marks cues in the script and the rest are either behind instruments or lost in a book. Regardless of their involvement, these children are safe and finding a place in their community.
Six years ago, Anna Maria Horn, a gospel singer and mother of six, was “mortified” when she learned her children’s school, among several others in Lansing, cut their art programs. “I knew in suburban areas that isn’t an issue, so what’s going to happen to our kids?” Horn said.
Horn, 44, and her husband, who are are trained actor-musicians, knew they could offer an arts education to their children. However, Horn said it didn’t seem right that their children would be among the only artists in the class. Starting in 2014, Horn turned her “informal” after-school acting classes into a nonprofit, called Hope-Central Urban Arts.
Cats being cats
Part of the tradition of this family-operated program is an annual play directed by Horn and her team of local specialists. This year, Hope-Central is staging a production inspired by the 1970 animated film “The Aristocats.” The production includes jazzy numbers such as “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” in a way children will enjoy, Horn said.
A monthly music class is the only remnant of the arts program at Lewton, whose music, a few students say, is “boring.”
Horn said that the music taught in school is “very Eurocentric” and often presented without historical context. After attending one rehearsal, it is apparent that what the students lack in experience, they make up for with enthusiasm and style.
Drum instructor Monique Stephens simplified the swinging percussion sections to reflect more contemporary boom-bap drum beats. A hip-hop emphasis seems to resonate with students who improvise on choreographed footwork to hit a “Roy Purdy,” “milly rock” or other popular hip-hop dance moves. The open environment created by the Hope-Central leaders goes beyond supervision: It’s culturally expansive.
In addition to theater, the program has specialists brought in from the Lansing school district or Horn’s personal circle of local artists and educators. Through Hope-Central, students can learn various instruments and art-related trades from drawing to audio engineering.
Parent Heidi Fei said she started noticing a change in her daughter’s behavior when she started taking acting and ukulele classes through Hope-Central.
“Whenever we prod her like ‘show us, show us,’ she’s a little timid about it and this is really helping her get more comfortable demonstrating her talents with other people,” Fei said. “I’m not a musical person and we are really happy that she is exploring different things.”
For Horn, one of the biggest burdens of being an artist is giving back to the community. Hope-Central has made a point of making seasonal trips to retirement homes where the children sing retro-pop classics. Horn admitted that getting the children on board with the old-school repertoire was a challenge at first, but in the end, even her most reluctant student “cried when they had to leave.” This was the first year they couldn’t afford to make the tour.
Urban arts matter
When she isn’t subbing for teachers in the pre-K through sixth grade building, Horn directs and coordinates with instructors without compensation. Horn says the greatest challenge running the urban arts program has been getting funding.
“We were at risk of not having a program this year,” Horn said. “We are looking at $6,000 for the year, which is more than half of what we brought in. I’m not sure what we will do next year.”
The annual fee to participate in the Hope-Central Urban Arts Program is $20, all of which goes toward stage uniforms. All seven instructors have a small monthly stipend, but occasionally they go above and beyond their requirements. A large portion of the funds goes toward transportation for students who elected school of choice to benefit from Lewton’s Spanish immersion program. According to Horn, nearly 60 of the 120 participants in the program do not have reliable transportation.
Horn said in the five years of the nonprofit, she has been unsuccessful getting local grants.
Regarding networking in arts education, Horn says, “I’m a mom of six children. It's not that I’m not interested in attending the different meetings around town, we just have to prioritize. One negative stereotype about families with an urban core is that we don’t care.”
The reality for many families involved with Hope-Central is both parents are working to feed multiple children.
“Then you add the social ills or what if the car breaks down? There are no breaks for parents at the urban core,” Horn said.
Hope-Central Urban Arts
Friday, May 17 – Saturday, May 18
$0 - $20
Gardner Elementary School
333 Dahlia Dr. Lansing