Randall Beach: Our students need to dance, to write, to sing, to play on

 
Reaiah Rutherford, a music student at Educational Center for the Arts, describes how the school has nurtured her.
Reaiah Rutherford, a music student at Educational Center for the Arts, describes how the school has nurtured her. Contributed photo — Jennifer Kaylin

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Randall Beach


Reaiah Rutherford said she was scared when she first walked into the Educational Center for the Arts, but now “ECA is literally my home away from home.”

“It was so weird,” she recalled. “Everybody welcomed me. I had never been used to people wanting to be there for me besides my family.”

Rutherford, who is now a senior at that arts magnet school in New Haven, was poised and confident as she spoke to a large crowd at the ECA auditorium Wednesday morning. She almost certainly developed that self-esteem by being at ECA for the past several years.

But we didn’t all come there at 8 a.m. on a weekday for a happy occasion. Over the past year, ECA has already sustained a $91,000 hit in reduced state funds. The staff, students and their parents fear more will be cut in the upcoming academic year.

This is happening across the state. For the present year, magnet schools all over Connecticut are having to deal with a 6.5 percent funding cutback.

Officials with Area Cooperative Educational Services, which operates ECA as well as two other magnet schools, Wintergreen Interdistrict School in Hamden and Thomas Edison Middle School in Meriden, are as worried as the students and parents about the future of these programs.

And so they invited state legislators from the New Haven area to come to the auditorium and hear these students’ stories.

I was there with my wife not just because this is an important and timely news story when arts funding is being threatened all over America. We were on hand because we are parents of two ECA alumni; both of our daughters spent the afternoons of their high school years there in the creative writing program. We saw them blossom as writers and workshop participants who learned how to supportively critique the work of their classmates.

When we told our daughters about the situation at ECA, our elder, Charlotte, wrote an email to the state legislators.

“I would not be the person I am today if not for the experiences I had and the lessons I learned from the rich community of artists at ECA,” she said.

“ECA prepared me for my college career at Brown University in ways that my regular high school, Wilbur Cross, simply couldn’t,” she added. “The intimate, discussion-based classes in which all ideas were welcomed and challenged molded me into the writer, artist and thinker I am today.”

Indeed, both of my “kids” are now professional writers in a time when such jobs are mighty hard to find. ECA helped make this possible. I want ECA to survive so it can train future generations in the arts.

Rutherford, who is a violinist in the music program, told us that without ECA there is no way she could have continued her in-depth musical studies through high school.

“That’s a sad thought,” she said. “The violin is my life.”

Rutherford said she’s already getting wistful thinking she will be leaving ECA in a few months as graduation looms. But she added, “I’m prepared to go out into the world.”

Alex Blair, another student in ECA’s music program, told us one of his classmates got the opportunity to visit New York City for the first time in his life — and sang with the ECA choir at Carnegie Hall.

“We were able to send people to China last year,” Blair noted. “How many people in this country are able to experience that?”

“Austerity will not create a better society,” he said. “What makes a better society is fostering initiative in these programs.”

The students reminded us that kids come to ECA from the various income brackets and neighborhoods of New Haven as well as from 27 towns. ECA Principal Jason Hiruo told us there are 300 students who come together in that Audubon Street building.

“There is no other school like ECA in Connecticut,” he said.

ECA is a gateway for kids from poor families, said Mnikesa Whitaker-Haaheim, a former English teacher at Fair Haven Middle School who founded Ballet Haven.

She said now some talented young dancers have a place to go on to when they finish eighth grade. “No one could have thought these girls could do this. But because of ECA, it was possible.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” she told us, “to see them become mature artists.”

The legislators in the room were clearly impressed. “In a time of tough budget cuts, it’s particularly important for the New Haven delegation and the state delegation to hear these powerful stories,” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. “We look at numbers on a page and we don’t always hear these stories.”

He urged everybody in the room to pepper legislators with calls, letters and emails advocating sustained ECA funding.

Brendan Sharkey, the former speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, said citizens need to remember that “magnet schools are public schools. They are not charter schools.” (When state funds are given to charter schools, that means less money for the magnets.)

State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, remarked that arts education “is pivotal in how it empowers, especially for our young people. I feel it in this building. These are the things that bring life to the dream.”

Randall Beach

Contact Randall Beach at rbeach@nhregister.com or 203-680-9345.