Art Education for Those ‘Who Need it the Most’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — On a Tuesday evening, long after working professionals have gone home for the day, the first floor of the Ohio One building in downtown Youngstown bustles with activity as students fill the classrooms and workspaces at Students Motivated by the Arts, or Smarts.

Voices from the ceramics room mesh with sounds from the violin class just one door down. In the main lobby, a group of students practice character development while a table of another dozen or so work on their latest prop and costume-making creation: superhero logos that will be printed on T-shirts the following week.

Olivia Vinion, 10, started with a star inside of a circle. After drawing some additional lines, she says the design resembles a person in the middle.

“I haven’t figured out the name yet,” she says. “But I’m going with a shapeshifter.”

Vinion attends the Montessori School of the Mahoning Valley and has been taking classes at Smarts for a year. Over the summer, an interior design class had students design and renovate the break room at Youngstown Area Goodwill Industries and select its furniture.

Olivia Vinion displays her logo for a shape-shifting superhero.

“It was really fun seeing it all come together,” Vinion says.

Creating opportunities such as this is central to the mission of Smarts, which connects arts education to students “who need it the most,” says its executive director, Becky Keck.

Classes are offered at no cost.

“That’s really about access and equity,” Keck says. “Accessing the ability to connect to arts classes, and then equity in all of the arts disciplines.”

It’s the same mission since Smarts was established in 1997, when Keck headed the Youngstown State University Family Entertainment Series. The series was a way for the College of Fine and Performing Arts to reach out to students in kindergarten through sixth grade. During conversations with the late George McCloud, who would become dean of the college, they discussed a better way to do that.

“The students in the College of Fine and Performing Arts didn’t look like the students in our community,” Keck says. “The racial, ethnic diversity of our community was not represented in the college.”

Trey Burkey and David Vinion get a violin lesson from Claire Lyons.

Keck created Smarts to be a preparatory division for the college, providing an opportunity for children to receive arts education. Smarts operated at YSU until 2013, when the university discontinued the program because of budget cuts.

In December 2014, a coordinated effort between Keck and others, as well as a donation from the Youngstown Foundation, gave Smarts new life with its Beats program – a music-based class for students with special needs.

Beats began with 125 students in seven Mahoning County schools. Today, it holds about a dozen daily classes in schools in Austintown and Boardman, as well as Potential Development in Youngstown, the ACLD School and Learning Center, and the Paula and Anthony Rich Center for Autism on the YSU campus.

Smarts now offers a full curriculum of fine and performing arts, with teachers seeing about 1,700 students weekly at its school at 25 E. Boardman St. and in traditional classrooms, Keck says. On-site classes alone saw 250 students throughout 2017, and Smarts is on track to double that this year.

Curriculum is rooted in visual arts, music, dance, theater and creative writing, says its art education author, Lindsay Goossens. While a majority of the students are in third to seventh grades, classes are available for pre-K to 12th grade and draw students from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties as well as parts of western Pennsylvania.

Lindsay Goossens is working on Smarts’ schedule for next spring.

Classes include piano and violin lessons, jazz improvisation, voice, ceramics, art, modern dance, acting and poetry, among others. Most are offered in 10-week sessions after school on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Goossens is working on the schedule for next spring and hopes to offer more themed classes, which will allow students to dig deeper into a medium they’ve been studying for a year or two, she says. Voice class was introduced this fall and has just two vacancies from the original 15 openings.

“That’s been going really well and the students are excited,” she says. “We’ve got some students who have just been dying to sing.”

Cailyn Turner, 9, has wanted to sing and play piano since she was five years old, she says. Turner attends Akiva Academy in Youngstown and has been coming to Smarts for two months.

Smarts gives students like Cailyn Turner an opportunity to be herself.

“This is my first year and I’m loving it,” she says.

Turner says Smarts gives her more of a chance to be herself. At school, there’s a greater emphasis on projecting a certain image, which can take up her focus, she says.

“When I’m here, I can focus completely on the thing that’s in front of me, like the piano,” she says.

Mekhi Dawson is another first-year Smarts student who takes piano and visual art. He recalls how it felt playing his first song, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

“It felt really good to finally play it perfectly all the way through,” Dawson says. “It felt like I was finally getting started on something important.”

Sharlotte Dawson enrolled her son, Mekhi, at Smarts to learn piano and visual arts.

Dawson is home-schooled, so it was important for his mother, Sharlotte, that he enroll at Smarts to get more socialization. Learning to play piano wouldn’t have been possible without Smarts, she says.

“I’m a single mom. It’s hard for me to afford extracurricular activities like that,” she says. “This was such a blessing to find out about, because I don’t know how else I’d be able to do it.”

Mekhi Dawson hopes to pursue a career in composing soundtracks for video games and is working on a concept for a game with friends who can help him with the music. “We’re doing different pictures and art of what the characters will look like, what the setting will look like,” he says.

Watching a student develop is rewarding for teachers and staff, Goossens says, particularly when a student is going through difficulties. Staff suggest classes that may meet a child’s unique needs in those instances, she says.

“It’s real fun to watch them grow and settle in and feel like they’ve found a place,” Goossens says. “This is where they can really connect, express themselves, and process through some of the things that are hard in their lives.”

Impact Maker

Alura Webb, Smarts alumnus and volunteer

Smarts’ Rock Band Taught Her Confidence

For some, it might be hard to recognize how singing in a rock band or taking acting classes can give someone the tools necessary for a successful career in hospitality. But for Alura Webb, they’re making all the difference.

When Webb was 11 years old, she enrolled in music and acting classes at Students Motivated by the Arts, or Smarts, in downtown Youngstown. At the time, she was attending Chaney High School after it had been converted to a vocal performing arts school with programs for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

The classes at Smarts supplemented her education at Chaney, giving her more ensemble experiences, she says. At the time, Smarts was affiliated with Youngstown State University and students would perform at the DeYor Performing Arts Center.

“We would perform in front of all these people and parents,” Webb says. “It’s such an elevating experience.”

Those experiences gave Webb a newfound confidence, she says. When she was younger, she would sing along to music in the car while riding with her parents. If they shut the radio off, she says she would be scared to keep singing.

But at Smarts, she found herself singing in a rock band with her classmates and helping to write the music they performed. Whether collaborating or performing solo, the classes increased her self-confidence, she says.

“Self-confidence in myself, self-confidence in making friends,” she says. “I became such a more social person than I was back then.”

Now as a student majoring in hospitality at Youngstown State University, Webb is applying the lessons learned at Smarts to her adult life. Singing in the rock band gave her confidence while working in groups, both as a collaborator and as a leader. And becoming a more social person helped her network, she says.

“It helps me in my adult life because I know how to connect with other people a little bit better,” she says. “I know what I need in order to succeed. So if it’s not happening, I know that I need to go through the channels to get there. I have met so many people through Smarts.”

People such as Laura Dewberry, director of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership and a marketing instructor at YSU, and her husband, Ryan, a YSU graduate and regional director of operations at Janus Hotels and Resorts.

Webb met the Dewberrys while volunteering for the Art for Smarts fundraiser in September and Ryan Dewberry talked with her about the hospitality industry and offered advice.

“Find work in the industry and start getting experience,” he says. “Like everything else, nothing’s going to be handed to you. Be your boss’ best solution and you’ll always find yourself getting mobile to the top of the organization you’re in.”

Among the qualities that stood out to Dewberry about Webb was her curiosity.

She wasn’t afraid to ask questions and she took time to listen, he says. Young professionals who recognize they have something to learn and are willing to listen to the people in the profession are invaluable and “a rare commodity these days,” he says.

“I am not afraid to make sure I have all the information that I need,” Webb says. “I feel much more confident talking to adults, talking to people of authority.”

Webb credits experiences at Smarts for her increased confidence in speaking up and asking questions, and for helping her to be more comfortable assuming a leadership role, she says. She uses her time as a Smarts volunteer to educate others, including potential donors, on the importance of arts education for youth, she says.

Even if a student doesn’t pursue a career in art or music, arts education helps someone become “a whole person,” and to experience things that would otherwise be impossible without organizations such Smarts, she says.

“You can have a black line. And I think arts is turning that black line into a music sheet, into a creation of art,” she says. “Arts education broadens your mind in ways that you would have never known because we don’t just look at things. We need someone there to help guide us through what everything is.”

As for her future, Webb says the lessons she learned at Smarts will help her as she finishes college and pursues her career in hospitality. And she plans to continue volunteering at Smarts to help ensure other young people have the same experiences that benefited her, she says.

“I still volunteer because I think what [Becky Keck, Smarts executive director] is doing is so important,” Webb says. “And I’m going to continue to use that in my life, even though I’m not going to be an opera singer or an actor or anything like that. But if you need me to plan your wedding, you can call me.”

Smarts employs 42 part-time teachers who instruct classes on-site and in school districts, says its director of education, Caroline Lorimer. Smarts also partners with regional organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club of Youngstown, Akiva Academy, South Side Academy and Liberty Local Schools. A partnership with The United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley places teachers in 12 schools through its Success After 6 program, she says.

“These programs are important to the sustainability of Smarts because it’s a revenue-generating model for us,” Lorimer says. “It also allows us to work with students in our community that aren’t able to get here after school.”

Smarts operates on an annual budget of about $442,000, which is primarily funded by grants, donations and fundraisers, Keck says. The Art for Smarts event this year brought in $20,117, exceeding its goal, she says.

New programs under development include the Smarties volunteer program, which will help the school connect with more interested volunteers, says its staff administrator, Laura Makara. Volunteering opportunities range from helping with classes to administrative work.

“We’re trying to connect more with our families and with the community, and get some involvement with them,” she says.

Modeled after Beats, a pilot for the new Empowers program offers visual art, theater and dance education to students with special needs.

“Students in a lot of special-needs classes don’t always get offered the arts programs. And they definitely don’t get theater or dance as part of their curriculum,” Lorimer says. “So it’s really exciting that we’re going to be working on bringing that to the community.”

Smarts also creates opportunities for teachers, including new and retired educators as well as working professionals who have a passion for arts education, she notes.

Curtis Smith (second from right) instructs Aiden Long, Ellah Shannon and Tayrismar Mendez during ceramics class.

“It’s a really cool melting pot of people who have come together all with the same mission,” she says. “People who are passionate about this stay with us and continue to grow and get lots of different opportunities to advance their careers.”

Still, Smarts programming isn’t a replacement for arts education in traditional schools, Keck says. While the organization helps schools “fill the budget gap” in arts programming, it is “in no way intending to replace full-time arts teachers, but to help schools redevelop their programs and for us to connect to their students,” she says.

“In many circumstances, their students wouldn’t have arts classes if Smarts wasn’t here.”

Moving forward, Keck sees that need increasing, she says, and she is making inroads statewide.

Keck serves on the board of directors for the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education and is liaison to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for Any Given Child Warren. The site is one of 25 Any Given Child communities in the country and the only one in Ohio. And Keck is in talks with the National Endowment for the Arts to expand the initiative to another school district.

“I never imagined that 22 years later I’d be here,” she says. “Smarts has become a leader in arts education, not only in the Mahoning Valley, but really at a state level.”

How You Can Help

Community members can have a positive effect on Smarts by making a donation, participating in fundraising or volunteering their time.

Donations help fund operating costs at Smarts, based in the Ohio One Building at 25 E. Boardman St., Youngstown, as well as visual arts, music, dance, theater and creative writing programs.
Credit card donations can be made online at, and checks can be mailed to Smarts at 25 E. Boardman St., Youngstown, Ohio 44503.

Donations of $100 or more should be made through the Youngstown Foundation Support Fund, which will add another 10% to the total. Checks made out to the Youngstown Foundation can be mailed to Smarts. Online donations can be made at and by selecting Smarts as the recipient.

Those interested in volunteering during class time or to help during a fundraising event, such as Art for Smarts, should contact Smarts for volunteer opportunities by calling 330 574 2787.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.