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Learning in and through the Arts

Santina Protopapa’s Progressive Arts Alliance engages young people in the creative process

By Arthur Evenchik

Published in spring 2015

Santina Protopapa leads a team of artist-educators who integrate the arts with other content areas, including science and math. Photo by Dale Rothenberg.

A reporter once asked Santina Protopapa (CWR ’00) to name her favorite piece of public art. She didn’t even have to think about it: “The jazz trumpeter on Buckeye,” she replied. Rising near an intersection on Cleveland’s East Side, Trumpet Man, a sculpture by artist James Simon, is an outsize figure made of cement, performing a permanent solo gig in an open-air plaza of pavement and brick. Holding his horn to his lips with one hand, he lifts the other toward the sky.

“The gesture captures the physicality and magic of a musician playing,” Protopapa told The Plain Dealer’s Grant Segall in 2013. “It’s a testament that art can really enliven a community.”

It’s easy to see why Protopapa would embrace that message. She is the founder of Progressive Arts Alliance (PAA), a nonprofit that nurtures the diverse talents of young people in Greater Cleveland and gives them opportunities for positive self-expression. Since 2002, PAA has engaged thousands of children and teens in the creative process by enabling them to work with professional artists, providing them with access to materials and technology, and offering them venues for presentation and performance.

Achieving this mission has required a wholehearted commitment and a willingness to take risks. To launch PAA, Protopapa gave up a secure job as the manager of education programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. She started out with no business plan, budget or board of directors. For the first few years, she went unpaid and worked without an office or permanent staff.

An 18-foot mural at the Mound STEM School illustrates fractals. Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

It is all very different now. PAA has become a multifaceted arts organization, operating innovative programs with Cuyahoga County Public Library, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, community centers, parks and other local institutions. Protopapa oversees five full-time staff members and a team of artist-educators whose specialties include sculpture, printmaking, film production and digital media, graphic design, spoken word poetry and dance. In all of these areas, she says, PAA has become a source of expertise for community partners seeking to enrich their educational offerings or expand their youth-outreach activities.

While increasing PAA’s capacity and impact, Protopapa has also developed her own skills as an educator and organizational leader. In 2007, seven years after she graduated from Case Western Reserve with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and music, she returned to the university to earn a certificate in nonprofit management. In 2008-09, she attended Harvard University as a Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, taking classes and participating in field experiences with other founders of nonprofits. At the same time, she completed a master’s degree in the Arts-in-Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Without downplaying the value of the knowledge she has gained, Protopapa says that PAA owes much of its success to a quality she and her collaborators had from the beginning: “passionate persistence.” Today, they cultivate that same quality in their students, whether the setting is a media lab, a dance studio or a classroom where the arts are integrated with education in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

During a visit to the Mound STEM School, Protopapa spent time with fourth graders along with Stephen Phillips, a full-time staff member who was once a PAA student himself. Photo by Dale Rothenberg.

During a visit to the Mound STEM School, Protopapa spent time with fourth graders along with Stephen Phillips, a full-time staff member who was once a PAA student himself. Photo by Dale Rothenberg.

In recognition of her achievements, Protopapa will receive the 2015 Young Alumna Award during Homecoming Weekend in October. She notes, “CWRU has been an important part of my life since I was a student at Cuyahoga Heights High School and a member of the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony. I’m honored to accept this award and pleased that the university continues to be an important resource in my current endeavors.”

Building an Opportunity

Protopapa didn’t always plan to become an educator or the leader of a start-up nonprofit. Her goal early in her college career was to work in public relations for an established arts institution. As a sophomore, Protopapa served as a marketing and communications intern at the Cleveland Museum of Art. But when she applied the next year for a similar position at the Rock Hall, there were no openings. Instead, she was offered an internship in the education department. She had no idea, when she accepted it, that she was about to set off in a new direction.

The internship was supposed to end after one semester, but the Rock Hall kept asking her to stay on. Then, the summer before her senior year, a full-time position opened up in Protopapa’s department, and her boss told her the job was hers if she wanted it. “I said, ‘I can’t quit school. My parents will kill me,’” she recalls. But when she looked at her remaining course requirements, she realized that if she gave herself an extra year to graduate, she could take the job and still complete her bachelor’s degree. She would just need permission to leave work early twice a week to attend classes and rehearsals.

“I made that proposal—I’ve been making crazy proposals for a long time now—and they said OK,” Protopapa says. “And that was it. I graduated a year later than I planned but was walking out with a full-time job.”

As it turned out, the Rock Hall didn’t only give Protopapa her start in education. It also introduced her to forms of creativity that would later provide the impetus for establishing PAA.

In 1999, Protopapa organized a major conference on hip-hop culture. Looking beyond commercial rap music, the conference explored the origins of hip-hop—styles of music, dance, visual art and verbal display that young people in the Bronx created in the 1970s. “Hip-hop culture provides multiple forms of artistic expression that are rigorous and disciplined as well as uplifting—nothing like what the commercial recording industry promotes,” Protopapa says. Eventually, she decided to create a program where Cleveland youth could draw inspiration from these cultural forms and find their own voices.

At the time, Protopapa didn’t think of herself as a social entrepreneur. “I didn’t even know that phrase,” she recalls. “I was building an opportunity to reach kids with what I was most passionate about.”

Students at PAA’s hip-hop camp break dance in a studio at the Idea Center in PlayhouseSquare, coached by PAA artist-educator Anthony “Tony Fresh” Velez. Photo by Matt Beckwith.

PAA’s debut venture, the RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp, was held at Cuyahoga Community College in 2002. It has been an annual event, in a growing number of locations, ever since. Last year, PAA conducted eight camps around the city, and the top participants attended a culminating two-week session at the Idea Center, home of Cleveland’s public radio and television stations, in PlayhouseSquare. In addition to its broadcast facilities, the Idea Center houses classrooms, a black box theater and a dance studio whose street-level windows face Euclid Avenue, allowing passersby to watch the students rehearse their break-dance routines.

The 21 participants, ages 10–18, were a mix of urban and suburban youth, all drawn together by hip-hop. They didn’t concentrate on any single art form. Instead, they rotated in groups of seven through daily classes with a DJ, a dancer, a rapper and a graphic artist. In DJ-ing class, they created boisterous, percussive music using laptops and turntables. In rap class, they explored rhyme, rhythm and figurative language, all of which they incorporated into poetic compositions and improvisations. In art class, they combined letters and images into graffiti-inspired paintings.

At every opportunity, the teachers discussed the history of hip-hop and the performance traditions that preceded it, invoking Cab Calloway as well as DJ Kool Herc. They emphasized the personal characteristics that art-making requires, posting words such as discipline, intention, and determination on the walls. The students were constantly reminded that they would need these traits to excel not just in hip-hop, but in every aspect of their lives.

At last summer’s camp, several of the counselors —and one of PAA’s participating staff members, Stephen Phillips—were RHAPSODY alumni. Protopapa mentions this fact with pride and a touch of wonder. “We never imagined,” she says, “that eventually we’d have students who had been through our program who would work for us and intern for us and be our best achievement.”

A Natural Extension

As the number of PAA’s partnerships has grown, Protopapa has increased the range of contemporary arts it supports. At every branch of Cuyahoga County Public Library, for instance, PAA artists run media arts programs and what Protopapa calls “maker workshops.” Students have created public service announcements and learned to design DIY (do-it-yourself) electronics. The artists also teach librarians to use new media technologies so that they can be involved in expanding the library’s traditional services.

PAA artist-educator Marcus Brathwaite (left) and second graders at the Orchard STEM School created a woven shelter inspired by the wetu, the traditional habitation of the Wampanoag people. Installed in a corner of the classroom and furnished with bookshelves, the shelter has become the children’s “reading hut.” Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

Protopapa began engaging with local schools while she was at the Rock Hall. Later, that experience inspired her to think of ways to bring PAA artists directly into the classroom, and especially into STEM education.

“It was a natural extension of our work,” she explains, “because the thinking that’s involved in science or math is part of what artists do anyway. People don’t realize the depth of everything that goes into an artistic practice. Photographers and mixed-media artists use chemicals and must understand chemical change to be able to produce their art. Designers and architects draw to scale. We wanted to connect those dots, to make those obvious connections, and present a rigorous learning opportunity.”

Protopapa adds, “The classroom teachers say, ‘That just makes so much sense.’ And for me, it shows that learning in and through the arts has all of these great implications for the classroom. Art can stand alone, but it can also be a platform for deeper understanding.”

PAA is now implementing these ideas in a network of Cleveland STEM schools for children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The artists collaborate with teachers to design project-based lessons that integrate the arts with science, math and other content areas, and they work with children as they complete the projects. As a result, the artists have a powerful impact on instruction, school cultures and even the physical buildings, which are ornamented by PAA-inspired murals and sculptures.

Landforms and Clouds

On a wintry morning last November, Protopapa visited the Mound STEM School in Cleveland’s Slavic Village, where PAA artists have been in residence since 2013. Like the other members of the STEM network, Mound has received extra resources from the district to boost student achievement. It is designated as an “Investment School,” and one of the investments the district has made is in PAA.

During a classroom visit, Protopapa helps a kindergarten student at the Mound STEM School examine the parts of a paintbrush during a mixed-media project about the lifecycle of butterflies. Photo by Dale Rothenberg.

During the fall term, children in every grade were busy with projects. First graders created imaginary animals, and then drew habitats that would meet those animals’ basic needs. Fourth graders molded clay into miniature landforms—grasslands, mountains, peninsulas—as part of an Earth science unit. Eighth graders designed and built Rube Goldberg contraptions to demonstrate their knowledge of kinetic and potential energy.

Protopapa began her visit with the fourth graders, who were working intently in an art room filled with natural light. Some of the students were flattening lumps of clay with wooden rollers; others were scoring their landforms with lines and grooves. Meanwhile, PAA artist-educator Bonnie MacKay (GRS ’01) was moving from table to table, offering guidance.

In an adjoining storeroom, Protopapa pointed out a kiln the district had purchased when the building opened in 2011. When PAA artists first arrived at Mound, they found the kiln in its original box, unused. Soon they had it up and running, and a variety of projects followed, including two tile installations near the school’s entrance. The first is an 18-foot mural with a mathematical theme, its parti-colored squares illustrating fractals. The second is a panel of bas-reliefs that students weighed and measured before and after firing them to ascertain the effect of heat on matter. The glazing process also inspired lessons on chemistry and color.

The older students Protopapa observed were becoming adept at more advanced technologies. The sixth graders, for instance, were producing animated films in which various chemical elements would appear as cartoon characters. In one film, a hydrogen atom fled a burning house—a lucky escape, since hydrogen is flammable. Other scenarios featured chlorine swimming in a pool, carbon in a charcoal grill, nitrogen in the stars.

So far, the students had created storyboards showing each stage of the action, as well as drawings and paintings for their animations. On this particular morning, they were photographing their artwork with iPads mounted on tripods. Artist Lauren Sammon helped them operate the equipment and decide what angles and distances to shoot from. Eventually, they would use editing software to select images for their films and splice them together.

Mound STEM School seventh grader Kamden Pearson soldered the wiring for a cloud sculpture project that taught him about circuitry and Earth science. Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

LED-illuminated clouds constructed by seventh graders float above a classroom at the Mound STEM School. Photo by Jared Akerstrom.

Finally, Protopapa visited the seventh grade, where artists Ainsley Buckner and Ben Horvat had devised a lesson blending Earth and space science with electronics. Groups of students had designed sculptures representing different cloud types: stratus, cumulus, and so on. On this day, they were turning their designs into installation art—looming white shapes that would be lit from within. Some of the students were building armatures for their sculptures out of clear acrylic rods. Some were soldering light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to wires that would be threaded through the clouds’ interiors; others were fashioning their sculptures’ outer surfaces from cottony polyester fiber. By next semester, the finished clouds would hover over a classroom, brightening and dimming and changing color in sequences generated by their hidden circuitry.

Protopapa notes that PAA artists continually develop and refine lessons like these. “We’re never going to just sit back and say, ‘This is the program,’” she explains. “At first, we didn’t know how rigorous we could make arts integration. But that has changed now.”

In Collaboration

Twice a year, children from the Cleveland schools display their work at a STEM showcase at the Great Lakes Science Center. Many of the projects are accompanied by tiny placards that read, “In collaboration with Progressive Arts Alliance.” At last December’s showcase, second graders from the Hannah Gibbons STEM School showed visitors collagraph prints illustrating the phases of the moon. Fifth graders hung pictures of animals—a spider monkey, a golden lion, a sloth—they had created using bleach on fabric.

Liz Espenschied and fellow hip-hop campers perform during a DJ-ing showcase last summer. Photo by Frank Lanza.

Several months earlier, the hip-hop camp had ended with an even livelier presentation: an afternoon of performances in the Idea Center’s Westfield Insurance Studio Theater. Students vaulted over each other in their break dances, twirled along with the records they were spinning on turntables and plucked rhymes out of the air as they freestyled. The cheering audience included relatives, PAA supporters and other community members.

Protopapa was gratified by their enthusiasm, but she wasn’t surprised. “I haven’t met a funder, parent, board member or educator who has been to one of our workshops, who has seen a performance, who didn’t say, ‘Now I get it. This is way more than I ever imagined.’”

Online Extra: Visit to read about the partnership between Progressive Arts Alliance and think[box], Case Western Reserve’s center for innovation and tinkering.

Page last modified: February 9, 2017