Smarts Extends Reach, Impact to Students

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Students Motivated by the Arts Inc., more commonly known as Smarts, has not only overcome challenges brought on by the pandemic, but has set new standards and business models for other educational programs across the country to emulate, officials say.

“Smarts used the pandemic as a catalyst to improve their business strategies, further develop outreach programs, consider cost-saving measures, and use digital technologies to successfully program for audiences – not just in the Youngstown community but around the world,” says Donna Collins, executive director of the Ohio Arts Council. “It’s nothing short of a success story from which we can all take lessons in leadership, determination, business savvy, and grit.”

Smarts, established in 1997 and awarded nonprofit status in 2014, provides free public classes in visual art, music, dance, theater and creative writing. After the cancellation of its spring 2020 classes by Ohio’s stay-at-home order, the community arts organization pivoted to online learning and launched Virtual Smarts within two weeks, says its president, Becky Keck.

“We plunged into a new depth of teaching and learning while discovering what arts education could be in a virtual setting,” Keck says.

Smarts hired additional teachers, student assistants, and invested in technology such as laptops, iPads, headsets, cameras, green screens, and Zoom accounts. Smarts employs more than 50 teachers part-time with backgrounds in the arts.

The organization also added three new program managers and a development coordinator, Keck says.

Smarts returned safely to in-person classes in the summer of 2021, she says. During the fall semester, Smarts offered 33 classes with 300 spots for students.  Spring classes begin Jan. 25, with 33 classes and 281 places available for students.

Smarts offers classes both in-person and virtually, providing flexibility for partner organizations such as Warren City Schools, South Side Academy, Akiva Academy, Potential Development and Liberty Local Schools, among others, Keck says.

Smarts serves PK-12 students each week through its offices in the Ohio One Building in downtown Youngstown, community art schools and youth organizations, Keck says.  More than 1,600 students are in its database and during the height of the pandemic, 481 students enrolled in public classes, while more than 1,200 other students were reached through 20 community partners.

Smarts’ new strategic plan for 2022 calls for facility updates, the hiring of additional staff, program expansions and the addition of new community partners.