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A night of art and accomplishment at St. James School

This week, the students of St. James School on W. Clearfield Street showed off their creative sides with a night of musical performances, printmaking, plastering demonstrations and a vibrant art exhibit. 

For a majority of the fifth grade students at the school, this was their first year being exposed to art and music education. So, naturally, they treated this Wednesday’s Art and Music Showcase as a chance to celebrate. 

Executive Director David Kasievich says that, originally, the school considered only using art teachers on a volunteer basis, but in what he calls “a bold decision” by the board, the choice was made to hire art teachers for St. James before they knew where the money would come from.

To Kasievich, it was a chance to test his theory that all kids need art, and seven months after the start of St. James’ first fifth-grade class, the decision to make the arts a core part of the curriculum has paid off, not only in the way the kids’ talents have blossomed, but in the wealth of community resources that materialized through the teachers’ professionalism. St. James kids have four forty-minute sessions of music and two ninety-minute sessions of visual art per week.

Introducing students to the arts 

The commitment to interdisciplinary learning at St. James is never more evident than in the kids’ artistic efforts, which have drawn everything from Japanese legend to the life of Beethoven seamlessly into the curriculum. Art teacher Deena S. Ball, a watercolorist, emphasizes several generously sponsored field trips to see the recent Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Henry Ossawa Tanner exhibitions in Philadelphia, as inspiration for the students’ work. 

Throughout the year, the kids have tackled Japanese-style print-making, acrylic painting, plastering, ceramics, graphic novels and perspective drawing, to name a few. One stand-out project includes fiercely colorful Chinese dragon puppets built ingeniously on Chinese food take-out containers.

Her class got off to a slower start than she had expected, since many of the kids had no background in art. Many of them began by emulating their peers’ work, but as the months passed in the study of many different styles and cultures, the kids “became much more creative and confident about expressing themselves.” Now, Ball’s students are building a solid grasp of how to incorporate the guidelines of a project while still coming up with a work of art that is unique. 

Music teacher Beth Dzwil, a viola-player and Suzuki violin instructor, has seen similar levels of growth in the music curriculum. There were honest doubts during the first days of school about whether this crop of fifth-graders could learn to carry a tune, but Dzwil’s diligent methods have produced a choir so accomplished that they sang at a recent service at St. Mark’s Church on Locust Street.

As the kids have studied composers, notation theory, singing and music history, Dzwil has been pleased to see them grow in confidence and projection. Her support has proven especially instrumental to student Ajia Hendricks.

Endless opportunities 

Dzwil recognized that she had a talented student on her hands right away – not only does the petite Ajia have a lovely voice, she writes her own songs, complete with original music and lyrics. Dzwil’s fiancé, composer and musician Andrew McMaster, upon hearing a recording Dzwil had made of Ajia singing her first song, also wanted to get involved. He donated time to fashion a harmony for Ajia’s piece and came to the school to accompany her song on the keyboard in preparation for a special solo at the Showcase, which drew thunderous applause from her peers and their families.

About two months ago, Dzwil facilitated an important audition for Ajia: she was recently accepted into the Philadelphia Girl Choir, based out of the Trinity Center for Urban Life, with a full scholarship. Further supporting her singing dreams, St. James has made a special provision for Ajia to leave school early on Mondays so she can make it to practice.

On the horizon for the St. James’ music curriculum is learning an instrument. A grant from the Philadelphia-based musical instruction nonprofit Musicopia is providing the school with six violins, but it’s not nearly enough for the whole class to get started. In addition to considering financial donations to the St. James music program, Dzwil urges community members to check their closets: are there any small-sized violins languishing in there from discarded childhood lessons? If so, St. James would be thrilled to put them to use.

The Arts and Music Showcase, which occupied the school’s large downstairs all-purpose room, welcomed families and supporters to galleries of the students’ work, three vocal performances, and demonstrations of print-making and plastering. Kasievich regards St. James’ experiment in the arts a resounding success, insisting that without ample access to the arts, the school would not be carrying out its mission to give its kids the best possible preparation for top high schools and colleges.

Looking at everything the kids have accomplished since last fall, he’s pleased to think of the future: “Can you imagine what they’re going to create in eighth grade?”

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