Youth express their creativity through visual mediums at Riverzedge Arts
Kelly Harlow ’18
Afterschool programs like Riverzedge Arts are attempting to fill in the gaps in art education as art classes are cut from school budgets across Rhode Island, particularly in inner-city schools.
“Woonsocket High School has about 1,700 students and only two art teachers,” said RIC alumna Kelly Harlow ’18, a youth development major. “That means most of these students will not be able to take an art class before they graduate. You’ll find similar scenarios in other school districts across Rhode Island.”
Riverzedge Arts ensures that youth have equal access to the arts unhindered by socio-economic barriers. In 2018 Harlow was hired as expanded learning program director. A year later, she was made interim executive director.
Located in a two-story, brick building on a residential street in Woonsocket, Riverzedge Arts serves 20 to 25 students during the school year and 15 additional students during the summer. Participants select one of four art and design studios – Print Works, Design Works, Media Works and Public Art Lab, and create real products for real clients.
The Print Works Studio produces printed apparel and other merchandise, ranging from T-shirts and sweatshirts to tote bags, mugs and posters.
Design Works specializes in graphic design, generating branding, brochures, invitations, logos, Web design and more.
Media Works is the photo and video studio.
And the Public Art Lab generates commissioned works such as large-scale public art pieces and high-end products like custom-painted Adirondack chairs.
Under the supervision of studio directors (local experts in these fields), these young artists work nine hours a week, from 3-6 p.m., earning a nonprofit minimum wage.
“The fact that our students work with real clients and are paid for their work makes our program special,” said Harlow. It’s not enough, she said, to offer an afterschool program for youth if they have to work after school to support their families or are responsible for child care at home. “At Riverzedge Arts, they’re able to express themselves through art and get paid for it.”
Harlow’s training in holistic and therapeutic development, which she minored in at RIC, guides her perspective and emphasis on working with the “whole” child in the field of youth development. We can give youth outlets to express their creativity, she said, but we can’t forget that they are also being asked to help their parents keep the lights on, the bills paid and food on the table.
Students refer to Riverzedge as their workplace and produce not only consistent output but high-quality output. The same high standards are expected of them academically. All program participants must maintain a C average or complete GED coursework and pass the GED exam. As a result, Riverzedge Arts boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate, and virtually all of its participants continue their education in college or through another post-secondary training.
Another well-known and highly lauded afterschool program in the state – AS220 – was founded by RIC alumnus Umberto “Bert” Crenca ’81. Its youth program has become a nationally recognized model for youth development.
Other exemplary afterschool art programs also exist within the state, but there aren’t enough of them. Educational and youth development experts agree that art education is not a frill but an essential element of education.
“A study by Americans for the Arts showed that students who participate in arts programs are more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, participate in science and math fairs, or win awards for writing essays and poems,” said Harlow. “Art helps learners develop critical problem-solving skills and it connects them to their own culture as well as to the world.”