Students Motivated by the Arts (Smarts) Resurrected

Becky Keck walked into the meeting with a plastic pumpkin full of Smarties….you know….those wrapped morsels of flavored sugar that throw the healthy eating crowd into spasms.  She spilled them onto the conference table as those sitting around it readily grabbed one…or several…eagerly unwrapping them to ingest their mid-afternoon burst of sugar.  Becky knows how to make an entrance.

She has always had a passion for food as her Facebook page readily indicates.  I am still waiting for my invitation over to “Keckville” for dinner. For now I am going to have to settle for a package of Smarties.  Those who know Becky also understand that she doesn’t carry Smarties to meetings for “la bellezza del giorno” (the beauty of the day) as my Italian grandmother used to say.  They represent Becky’s mission in life….to wrap young people in the arms of arts and culture through her outstanding program named Students Motivated by the Arts.

SMARTS website states “SMARTS is a community-based art school which seeks to motivate students to succeed in all areas of life by teaching them the discipline and focus that creating art takes….SMARTS community art school will provide access and early training in the arts for our region’s K-12 youth with a focus on underserved populations.”

The College of Creative Arts & Communication of Youngstown State University initiated the SMARTS program in 1997.  Originally envisioned as a vehicle to offer assistance to artistically inclined local students at an early age with the goal of having them eventually enroll in the university, a funny thing happened over the years.  The need for this kind of program overtook the initial goal as local students swamped the program for exposure from everything from art to dance to music.  It moved to its own facility adjacent to the DeYor Center for the Performing Arts serving thousands of students annually from 2003 to 2013.

Its inventory included over 40 violins, 20 keyboards, two baby grand pianos, three upright pianos, and over $25,000 worth of percussion equipment.  It served thousands of students ranging from those with the means to pay for the program to those who could not, and to those who were developmentally challenged or disabled.  It was a model of how community programs should work.

At the helm was Executive Director Becky Keck who maneuvered the organization threw rapid growth and changes.  Over her tenure she became one of the most prolific fundraisers in the Mahoning Valley.  SMARTS was a program everyone could get behind.

In 2013 things went south.  YSU announced it was terminating the SMARTS program for budgetary reasons.  State funding was being cut.  As successful as SMARTS was, it was not fulfilling its original purpose…to funnel students to YSU.  It was considered to be a non-core program.

The termination of SMARTS hit the community like a ton of bricks.  Its loss was heightened as state funding to public schools was also cut resulting in termination of their arts programs particularly in the elementary schools.  This was a program that needed to be saved.

A group of stalwart supporters sat and plotted a course to keep SMARTS going.  Becky led the pack and immediately began negotiations with the University to release the intellectual property rights to the program, the inventory of instruments and furniture paid for with money raised specifically for SMARTS, and unused cash earmarked for SMARTS.  She then contacted local funders for initial support and formed a new non-profit 501(3) to take charge.  Local real estate developer Richard Mills at Ohio One provided office space and furniture to allow the program to begin anew.  Jet Creative rebranded SMARTS with a logo, FB and website and the Legal Creative handled all of the legal work pro bono. Everyone did their part to aid SMARTS Transition to the community.

She then negotiated a lease for an outstanding accessible space in downtown Youngstown to operate its massive program. The first floor of the Ohio One Building is spectacular as renovations near completion complete with classrooms and a “Smarts-atorium” for performances. She also entered into agreements with several public and charter schools to assist them in providing arts and culture services to their curriculum that would otherwise not be available.

Most importantly…she took the fund raising bull by the horns and sold this outstanding program to donors, foundations, and benefactors who understand the importance of art and culture in the lives of young people.  They understand the difference these kinds of activities can make in young lives.

SMARTS, along with the Ohio Arts Council,  took the  lead in bringing the  John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts’ Any Given Child Initiative to the Warren City Schools. SMARTS has built a 35 member Community Arts Team for the project and serves as the lead arts organization. Becky serves as project coordinator. The Warren City Schools is the 20th Any Given Child community chosen in the country and is the first to be chosen in the state of Ohio.

SMARTS has been named by the Ohio Arts Council as a winner of the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Arts Education program.  The award will be presented in Columbus in May.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

Becky has shared with me some of her plans for the future.  The SMARTS program will ultimately be a template for the rest of the country as to how to merge education, government, non-profits, and private business into a cohesive pathway to providing a well-rounded and culturally rich education to students from all walks of life.

No similar program exists in Ohio.  It is another feather in the cap of the Mahoning Valley.  And I was reintroduced to Smarties!!!  For all of that, the Valley is grateful.

(Update of an article appearing in Youngstown Eats)