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These artists are filling the gap in America’s education system

From private music lessons to engaging children in philanthropy, Philadelphia is a springboard for organizations offering unique opportunities for children from under-resourced public schools to be involved in the arts.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, 80% of schools across America experienced budget cuts.

That financial stress saw many schools eliminate music, fine arts, and other electives to focus on core classes such as math and writing. Philadelphia, already one of the poorest large cities in the US, was hit hard with art supplies budgets dropping to $0.42 per child and many electives being cut altogether.

It’s shocking to see the arts dismantled when studies show just how beneficial they are.

Out of the 1.2 million students who drop out each year, those involved in art programs are 22% more likely to complete high school. Other studies show that students who study music perform better on math tests and have higher verbal SAT scores. So, it’s no wonder that artists and philanthropists have joined together to work towards keeping arts in public schools.

Elizabeth Hainen, the Solo Harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1994, is one of those artists.

She noticed that throughout Philadelphia, school orchestras had disregarded the harp and many were left abandoned in storage rooms. Instead of simply leaving them or throwing out the ancient instrument, Hainen sought to reintroduce children to the beauty of an old-world art form.

In 2004, she started the Lyra Society. She brokered a deal with the acclaimed Chicago-based harp marker, Lyon and Healy, to trade in all harps lying in disrepair in schools for new harps.

The Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP) was the first school that Hainen worked with offering not only new harps, but also private lessons to five students ranging from grades 5-12.

“The school loved it. It filled in the last piece of the puzzle for the school and slowly expanded into Philadelphia High School for Girls,” explains Elizabeth Steiner, the Executive Director of Lyra.

Steiner has performed as the principal harpist for the Baltimore, Maryland, and Delaware Symphonies. Yet, since 2011, she has balanced her busy schedule with teaching at Lyra, helping it blossom from five to 30 students across Philadelphia.

a child poses in a classroom with harp and teacher Curriculums are altered for children who struggle with the instrument and feedback is regularly given to help them reach the next level. (Photo: The Lyra Society)

She teaches small classes of eight and one private 30-minute lesson each week. For students who show a serious drive and dedication, Steiner has even personally placed a harp into their homes to continue practicing during summer break. Pedal harps, the instrument that she and Hainen perform, generally cost around $20,000.

“We’ve replicated the college-level process to give them something to work for,” Steiner explains. Lyra’s program is split into four semesters, each with its own evaluation at the end. “It gives that collegiate level of self-organization, time management, creativity, and satisfaction.”

The program also gives students the skills to work around obstacles. Curriculums are altered for children who struggle with the instrument and feedback is regularly given to help them reach the next level.

“Children are very motivated by goals,” Steiner adds. Learning and excelling together provides a sense of camaraderie for the students and helps build an identity that transfers beyond the classroom.

“It’s a lifelong holistic introduction to art and music and a discipline that can help them throughout their entire life. Some use the harp as a vehicle for self-expression,” Steiner says.

Steiner has seen some students continue to practice as a way to balance the stress of college. High schoolers set themselves apart by speaking about how the ancient instrument has helped shape their identities on college essays.

As Lyra Society continues to grow, new programs are being created not only for students in grades 5-12, but also for students in grades as low as second grade.

When questioned about the importance of introducing young children to an ancient instrument, Steiner replies, “No one questions why children get ballet lessons. No one questions the advantage of children who already have that advantage.”

young boy holds harp The Lyra Society was created to increase awareness of the harp as a major solo instrument, educate young harpists, and enrich the lives of students. (Photo: The Lyra Society)

Another organization giving students an opportunity to enrich their lives through the arts is Fresh Artists. The multi-layered organization invites children to become artists and philanthropists and also provides materials and educational programs to art teachers.

“If you see something broken, get off your butt and fix it,” says Barbara Allen, the founder of Fresh Artists.

It was what her mother taught her as a child when she would buy canned vegetables from factories to deliver to poor houses in the 1950s. Decades later, Allen took that philosophy to heart. In 2008, when she saw that the school district of Philadelphia’s art budget was slashed to $0.42 per child, she founded Fresh Artists as a solution.

Using her background working for the top art museums in the nation, Allen curates a collection of more than 2,000 pieces of art from K-12 children. These young artists are invited to donate the digital prints to raise money to buy art supplies for severely underfunded schools.

“We find teachers with desperate needs. We ask them what they want. We buy it and give it to them,” Allen explains of their model, which has expanded from Philadelphia to 48 states.

Within ten years, Fresh Artists has delivered more than $1.5 million in art supplies from children’s artwork whose prints are displayed in hotel atriums and the boardrooms of Fortune 100 companies.

“Corporate America has a vast amount of white walls. Children in public schools make an unending amount of strong, vibrant, and gorgeous artwork. Each has something the other needs,” Allen says.

It’s an innovative business model that empowers young lives by allowing children to become philanthropists. To Allen, givage is Fresh Artists’ mission label: “The children are not only talented, they’re generous.”

To help children understand what philanthropy means, Allen created the children's book, Pablo, the Philly Philanthropist. His story guides young students to better understand the impact they’re making in other children’s lives.

founder of nonprofit poses outside building Using her background working for the top art museums in the nation, Allen curates a collection of more than 2,000 pieces of art from K-12 children. (Photo: Fresh Artists)

Fresh Artists has also designed a dozen other programs to enrich students’ creativity.

Mini-Masterpieces invites children to put their own spin on some of the world’s most memorable and famous artwork. These interpretations are hung in local museums and a select few have been re-imagined into a memory game that is sold in art museums such as The Barnes.

Chip Art is another inventive program. It’s a collaboration with BEHR paint to recover their old paint color chips, which are then given to teachers as mosaic art projects.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for Fresh Artists. They now have a presence in 48 states, partnered with companies such as Crate & Barrel and Marriott Hotels, and have touched the lives of nearly 200,000 students through donated art supplies.

“The heart is the giving muscle. Exercise your heart. You have something you can give,” Allen says.

Her sentiment rings true for these artists who have responded to the growing gap in our education system. They have given their time, energy, and effort into building art programs that give children the opportunity to express themselves, grow creatively, and contribute to their community in a positive way.

Lindsay Christinee Williams headshot

Lindsay Christinee is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and screenwriter with a passion for sustainability, wellness, and the entertainment industry. Her work has been featured in The Marketplace, Thailand Tatler, and Fashion Weekly.

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