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Technology is a dominant feature in modern childhood education. It's imperative to keep up (and advantageous to be ahead of the curve) in mastering skills relevant to a digital society. But there's more to life, and learning, than code writing, computer competency, and solving challenges of matter, energy, space and time.

To that end, there's the arts.

Arts education goes beyond performing or painting or playing an instrument. It enhances children's capabilities in critical thinking, mathematics, science, social understanding, and self-confidence.

Which brings us to James Stanley, associate director of music and worship arts at First United Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock. He's administrator of the church's First Arts program. And he's passionate about it.

"It is quite a special ministry, in my opinion," he says--providing arts exposure to kids who most likely wouldn't get it, or much of it, otherwise. By doing so, he says, it's helping Little Rock be a better place for kids--for all of us--to live.

First Arts, which runs from 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, takes up a considerable amount of well-organized space in First United Methodist's offices. It has existed in some form for eight years, Stanley says, and was initially envisioned as a vendor of fine arts education for local students.

Early content offered private lessons in voice, piano, and guitar, as well as an art class. The curriculum has expanded to include music theory and group piano. If there's an interest in a previously untaught topic, he'll find a way to bring it into the fold.

"Our teachers are all active professional musicians or artists in Little Rock, most of whom attend our church," Stanley says, noting that having teachers who are engineers and pharmacists, among other professions, provides impressive role models for youngsters.

The program also makes use of volunteers--church members and parents of students--all of whom are subject to background checks.

"Since the program's beginning, our private studios have grown increasingly eclectic with the help of our truly diverse and skilled teaching staff. We have students taking private violin, piano, flute, percussion, electric bass, guitar, piano, and voice lessons," Stanley says. Instruments such as flutes, a saxophone, four banjos, a snare drum, guitars, a piano, and more--most of them donated--take up considerable space in his cheerfully cluttered second-floor office.

Who's doing the learning? Until recently, he says, "the vast majority of our students have come from eStem. In 2017, we began offering content to students from our partner school, Booker Arts Magnet Elementary, at no cost. We first piloted a program in cooperation with Chris Parker, Booker's orchestra teacher. Mr. Parker helps recruit students from his class that would benefit from extra instruction, and First Arts supplies the teachers, books, and materials.

"Later that year, First Arts increased content to include a drama class through a partnership with the Arkansas Arts Center. We sought to make this class available to the drama program at Booker much the same way that had been so successful with our orchestra class. With the cooperation of Booker's drama teachers, we recruited students from Booker's student body as well as our eStem connections. The drama class has more than doubled in the last year."

This semester, he continues, "we have been blessed to have two piano teachers wishing specifically to offer lessons to students from Booker as part of their personal ministry; we have over a dozen kids taking these lessons."

First Arts is serving 110 students for the 10-week fall semester, almost tripling in size over the two years Stanley has been involved. "We bus students in from Booker Arts Magnet and both locations of eStem Elementary [downtown and East Village]," he says. "We also draw students from Gertrude Remmel Butler Child Development Center after-care program [another ministry of First United Methodist Church].

"Though the program is available to any and all second- through eighth-graders able to provide their own transportation, these are our main fields of focus." Costs vary; the average is $300 per semester for private music lessons and $95 for group classes.

Students are provided a snack, homework help if requested (several of the volunteers are retired teachers), and structured free play until their selected content begins; in the meantime a movie plays in the kids' theater. Private lessons generally last for 30 minutes. Hour-long group classes begin at 4 p.m.

"Our strength comes from the church's initial vision for the program; we were never tasked with increasing the bottom line," Stanley says. "The goal of First Arts is to reach as many children as possible and give them the opportunity to learn from skilled professionals. "

As such, he explains, the program has been able to re-invest all proceeds directly into the enrichment of children who may not otherwise be able to afford it.

"To me, the future of First Arts is in working with schools to provide the extracurricular opportunities that more affluent families may take for granted. Through the dedication of our staff, our volunteers, and like-minded organizations like the Arkansas Arts Center, First Arts is able to live into our church's mission: being good neighbors to make Little Rock a place where children thrive."

More churches need to be doing this, he says. "It's not Bible study. It's fine arts education, by a quality staff, in a safe setting."

To learn more, call James Stanley at (501) 372-2252.

Editorial on 10/28/2018

Print Headline: A ministry of fine arts education

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