The Aiken County Public School District (ACPSD) in South Carolina invited 190 third- to 12th-grade students to participate in a free fine arts curriculum program at Langley-Bath-Clearwater (LBC) Middle School from June 5-July 11.
The acGATEWAY program – which stands for Aiken County Gifted and Talented Education with Artistic Youth – has provided students with an intensive, practical education in creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental and vocal music and visual art courses for more than 30 years.
Director Randy Hood said, “These kids had to audition; therefore, they are the top kids in their particular area. And that’s why we can be so concentrated…. We can get a year’s worth of work done in six weeks.”
In fact, high school participants earn a fine arts credit if they successfully complete the program and meet the faculty’s evaluation benchmarks. Students of all levels “must maintain at least a B average in the acGateway program to attend and continue to attend in the following years.”
Hood, who is also the ACPSD Fine Arts Coordinator, said, “We are using our top teachers across the county who teach in specific areas, and we are able to afford supplies for this program that we can’t afford in our budgets at each individual school. So, therefore, these kids are going to be able to do things they’re not able to do at their schools.
“We have a kiln here and Ms. [Mabry] MacGregor, one of our visual art teachers, is actually going to do Raku firing of ceramics and that, to my knowledge, has never been done here, and it’s not done in the schools either. That is a unique opportunity for our visual artists.
“And I could go on and on and talk about each an every area and what they have that we don’t have to offer [otherwise].”
MacGregor and Sandra Weeks assigned visual art students projects in painting, sculpting, sketching, making pinhole cameras and experimenting with photography. These middle- and high-school level students even created textile art with batik and bagru techniques.
Zachary Dobbs has worked with summer fine arts programs for several years. He said, “Many enter the program a bit under prepared from their regular school programs but learn extremely fast. Their progression is remarkable.”
Dobbs also said, “Students tend to maximize their potential when they are surrounded by other talented and enthusiastic students. Each student wants to be involved and, therefore, are motivated to learn.”
Steven Cheek, Kelsey Knight and Sonya Terry not only prepared the elementary musicians and vocalists for large ensemble performances, but also developed the students’ self-confidence by having them sing solos in front of their supportive peers. These students also learned how to play rhythm instruments for the showcase on June 28-29.
Fifteen-year-old Leann Deal, who will attend North Augusta High School in the fall, auditioned for acGATEWAY to improve her performance skills for the high school orchestra and, ultimately, audition for college scholarships.
Deal explained her conducting class, “We can take any of our songs or songs we listen to on the radio. We can conduct to them because [Mr. Dobbs] taught us the beats. Like for the march when Darth Vader comes out [in Star Wars], it’s real rigid. And for like “Hallelujah,” it’s really connected and smooth. We’re learning those kinds of things.”
Dobbs added, “This gets them opportunity to be in front of the group instead of just inside the ensemble. I think that they will take some great lessons back to their school programs and be better students after having to be the leader.”
Dr. Christina Hardin taught visual art this summer to the elementary school students. She said, “I’m really proud of them. These fourth- and fifth-graders are stepping up and performing like 15- and 16-year-olds on their activities.”
Hardin, Kimberly Fontanez and Bruce Sweeting challenged their art student to produce more observational drawings, to paint and etch with different mediums, to use clay and to make plaster casts.
Meghan Gray, 11, said, “I’ve learned about light sources and shadow…. I’ve learned a lot about pottery in Ms. Fontanez’ class.
“I also love the part about how Mr. Sweeting lets us draw what we want,” said Gray, who will attend Aiken Middle School in August. “It’s not forced…. And overall it’s just really fun for me.”
Gehr focused her instruction on helping students develop literary elements like theme, imagery, symbolism, tone and structure into their poetry and learn how to critique each other’s works.
Gehr said, “[My students] set the bar really high each year that I have them, and, this year, they did the same thing again – by creating better and better stuff.”
Student writers also designed their own altered books around a central theme of their choosing.
Teryn Harris, 14, said, “This is my first year. Mrs. [Charla] Coffin, the chorus teacher, … every year when she talked about GATEWAY, she would say, ‘Teryn, you should do it.… But this year I was like, ‘Yea, I’ll do it.’”
A rising ninth-grader at Midland Valley High School, Harris registered for the chorus program, played percussion with the full band and played Aaron Burr in the musical “Hamilton” at the showcase on July 10-11.
Hood said, “We don’t offer theater and drama at every single school, so it’s nice to be able to bring somebody with the talents and the education and the experience that Mr. [Antonio] Scales has for our students to put on a proper production.”
Harris recommended the acGATEWAY program to other ACPSD students: “They have dance, creative writing, art, orchestra – well, all the music department is tied together – but really they should apply so they can learn different skills through it.”
The acGATEWAY program concluded for the summer with special showcases by both age groups.
Elementary students performed for their Disney-themed showcase on June 28-29 at LBC Middle School. This program included vocal and instrumental pieces, several types of dances and a drama called “The Light in the Library.” Young people involved with the visual art curriculum displayed their paintings, sculptures and etchings in the school cafeteria.
Performances by middle and high school students culminated with a showcase on July 10-11. The faculty organized performances to alternatively highlight music, dance, creative writing pieces and a drama called “Unmurdered!” in the auditorium and invited guest to view the entire range of visual art pieces in the cafeteria.
All upper-level acGATEWAY students in creative writing, dance, drama and music participated in a finale that featured six songs from the musical “Hamilton.” Visual art students helped make costumes.