Private and public schools build artists together

Chris Lackner, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, July 15, 2006

Specialized private schools in Ottawa offer students of all ages the chance to hone their skills with professionals.

The Ottawa School of Speech and Drama, for example, is a non-profit charitable organization in Westboro that offers courses taught by professional actors and directors.

"We are not curriculum-focused in terms of meeting everyone's needs," says Amanda Lewis, the artistic director. "We are an enrichment program. We are able to provide complexity."

The courses include Shakespeare, voice, improvisation, creative drama and auditioning techniques. "The skills we're teaching here can be used in the professional world," Lewis says.

While the school is independent, it has links to the public system. Lewis, for example, sits on the arts advisory committee for the Ottawa Carleton District School Board. Occasionally the theatre school joins with public schools on projects.

Private schools offer a learning environment that appeals to talented students who may feel restricted by the public system, Lewis says. "There are no marks here: students set their own personal standard," she says. "There is a different feel because everyone here wants to be here."

Smaller class sizes allow instructors to focus on the individual talents and weaknesses of the 1,000-plus students -- of all ages -- who attend classes from September to May or at summer camps.

"There is one arts high school in Ottawa and it's not there for everybody," she says. "There are a lot more students in our city that need arts enrichment then can get it."

Jeff Stellick, the executive director at the Ottawa School of Art, says his organization helps fill a void in areas not taught in many high schools.

The school, in the Byward Market, offers classes in sculpture, painting, drawing, ceramics, printmaking and computer graphics. Students -- who range from children to senior citizens -- pay their own tuition fees, but bursaries are often available for children of low-income families. Many of the 50 to 60 full-time and part-time instructors are professional artists, and others teach in the public system.

"You develop judgment when you're painting and drawing," Stellick says. "Students learn that problems have more than one solution and there is more than one answer to a question. They learn to give themselves up to the unexpected."

Some Ottawa high school students make special arrangements with their principals to earn credits through the Ottawa School of Art. The school also has an outreach program that brings free arts classes into poorer communities, where arts facilities are limited and public schools often face restricted arts budgets.

With high school students facing a condensed four-year curriculum and less timetable space for arts electives, one education expert feels Ottawa's specialty schools should play a larger role in public education.

Annalee Adair, the national coordinator of ArtsSmarts, which funds arts education across the country, says community schools and organizations should be allowed to offer high school credits. Students could earn credits outside school, offering more flexibility with their academic timetables.

While community schools add to Ottawa's arts education tapestry, the most successful arts organization in the community is likely MASC. Founded in 1989, it has a roster of 58 artists who perform and teach workshops in more than 250 schools around Ottawa and Eastern Ontario.

Luis Abanto's band, the Colores Andinos, is on MASC's roster. Through a musical workshop featuring Latin American instruments, the musicians -- who hail from Peru, Chile, Ecuador and El Salvador -- teach children about their cultures.

"The show is our contribution to the school system. This is a venue for our music that has results," Abanto says. "The arts are not just about entertainment, it's about a different way of seeing and interpreting everyday life. Young people often lack an appreciation for culture and we need to change that. We need to educate the new generation."

While the School of Speech and Drama and the School of Art work outside the public system and MASC from within, all three underscore the important role Ottawa's arts community plays in education.

"The arts and creativity are one of those things that make us human," says Jennifer Cayley, the founder of MASC. "Young people often feel that they don't have the power to affect anything. Young people involved in the arts know they have the power to make a difference."

There are other private-sector schools in the city, such as the School of Photographic Arts in the Byward Market, which opened only last year and recently held an exhibition of the works of its first graduates.