“You know why we are drawing this?” said Ana Ruiz-Castillo, pointing at the portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that a student was sketching in pencil.
The child looked up curiously. “Because it’s the 50th anniversary of what he said, of his speech,” said Ruiz-Castillo, gazing at the drawing. “You did a great job! I can tell that’s him.”
The girl smiled shyly and her proud father, standing behind her, put his arm on her shoulder.
Ruiz-Castillo teaches drawing, painting and sculpture at the Harlem School of the Arts, which offers after-school programs in theater, the visual arts, dance and music and has just pulled back from the financial abyss, thanks to the generosity of musician and producer Herb Alpert.
Last month, the Herb Alpert foundation announced it would give $5 million to help retire the school’s debt, which exceeds $2 million, and establish a scholarship program. The grant added to the life-saving $1 million Alpert had already given the school in 2010.
“We thought, if we leave them without the weight of the debt they had inherited, they really could operate without a deficit.” said Rona Sebastian president of the Herb Alpert Foundation. “Now they’re free.”
In 2010 the Harlem School of the Arts found itself on the brink of closing, after 46 years. Alpert, an iconic trumpet player who became famous in the 1960s for hits including “A Taste of Honey”, read a newspaper story about its imminent closure and ordered his foundation to jump in and help.
Within a few weeks, Alpert and two other benefactors joined the city of New York to provide a $1 million grant, enabling the school to reopen only three weeks after it had suspended classes. As a condition of the grant, the school had to retire its old board and named a new chairman, Yvette Campbell.
Campbell, a former dancer and director of the Alvin Ailey Extension, managed to reduce the budget from $5.5 million to $3.4 million, mainly via layoffs.
“After years of poor management, we cut staff and found volunteers and interns,” Campbell said. “The school was focused on paying too much administration, not on teaching art.”
Though the first gift acted as a defibrillator, the future still looked grim for the ailing school, founded in 1964 by the concert soprano Dorothy Mayno and located on St. Nicholas Avenue at 141st Street. Before Alpert’s second grant was announced, the school owed half a million dollars in taxes. Campbell said that although the school has already retired its debt, it’s still working on paying off the tax lien.
Serving pre-schoolers through 18 year-olds, the school charges from $360 for a 16-week group class to $2,048 for 32 weeks of private instruction.
Adam Rosa, a 9-year-old whose long hair falls over his pallid face, is learning pop singing and guitar, but his favorite class is Shakespeare. In the class, he explained, the teachers “get a book and they read it to us, and then we have to act like one of the characters. I like it because I like to act like other people.”
Willie Teacher, who leads the Shakespeare class, said that the school’s focus is “creating a whole new person through the arts. If you can rock a viola, or can dance very well, I say… so what?” What matters more, he said, “is helping students with sensitivity and empathy.”
Jordan Hall, a charismatic 9-year-old from Harlem, is part of the school’s production of “The Lion King” and is learning to play the piano and to dance.
His regular school is a place of tests and quizzes, he says. “They see who you are here, and I like that better,” said Jordan, who wants to appear in a Broadway show one day.
Judith Insell, who directs the music department, sees diversity as among the school’s most important values. As a child, she said, she didn’t see many black people playing classical instruments. “It’s great that these kids do,” she said.
Apart from such courses as photography, sculpture, fashion design and musical theater, which attract over 1000 students, the school offers a selective, pre-professional scholarship course for students 12 through 18, preparing them to further their studies in the arts.
One student at the program is Maya Lee, 14, who grew up without a father on Staten Island. Since she was 6, Lee has traveled over two hours several times a week to the school; her painting, sculpture and drawing recently won her entrance to the city’s highly competitive La Guardia High School, where she will receive formal arts training.
“I’ll always look back on this place as a building block of who I am,” she said.
Ruiz-Castillo, recently appointed arts director, noted that many children like Lee come from troubled families and often have behavior problems before attending the school.
“And yet they are extremely talented children, living in households with no means,” she said. “The school gives them the opportunity to develop themselves, sometimes the only opportunity they’ve ever had.”
Sherryenn Regis and Evelyn Torres chatted amiably in the school lobby while they waited for their daughters to change into ballet clothes and start their class. They’re not local – Regis lives in Brooklyn, Torres in the Bronx – but they happily ferry their children to Harlem.
“It’s worth every penny, every minute of travel,” said Torres.
Regis, who works the night shift as a nurse at New York University Medical Center, said that her daughter, Starr Osborne, has learned discipline, and does her homework diligently since she started at the school. “They learn that you need to work hard to achieve what you want,” Regis said.
Torres’s daughter, Sade Thomas, plays the piano, takes ballet and sings in the choir.
“She wants to be a dancer, this is her dream.” Torres said, as her daughter pirouetted in the studio.
Some kids, Torres mused, never find themselves. “I see my daughter going somewhere.”