Soul of Art

In 2004, the Court Youth Center evolved from a nationally recognized afterschool and summer arts program into a year-round high school. After a year of exploration and input from the community, Irene Oliver-Lewis, Armena Taylor, Julie Padilla and four other individuals founded Alma d’arte, the first charter school in Las Cruces.

Some students go to Alma because they want to dance, others want to become visual artists, some want to become chefs and others just want to be onstage. Regardless of their chosen art form, all of them enjoy the safe environment with small class sizes where they can develop daily as artists for four years. According to Mark Hartshorne, the principal, “They (the students) may not be artists when they walk through our doors, but they certainly are when they leave.”

As you enter Alma, housed at Court Youth Center, for the first time your senses are bombarded. The walls are lined with art produced by the students; charcoal self-portraits, murals, sculptures, mosaics, paintings, poetry and digital photography. If you close your eyes and just listen, you might hear the synchronized castanets and the stomping of the dancers’ feet on the stage, the rise and fall of actors’ voices or even students reciting phrases in Chinese. As you continue exploring the school, your lungs will fill with the earthen smell of the clay and then give over to the smell of fresh food. If you’re lucky enough to be around during lunch, you might get to taste a restaurant quality meal that is prepared and served by students. Now that all of your senses are awakened, you become keenly aware that, yes, it is different than any other high school you have ever been to. It is a school that has talented students, numerous community partnerships, a quality staff and bright future.

“This is the first school I can just be myself and I don’t have to worry about being picked on,” says Brittney Hanway, a freshman. Like Brittney’s, there are numerous stories of students who suffered at other schools for being different, but at Alma they can explore who they are and can be themselves without the fear of others ridiculing them. The students at Alma are artistic, unique, and explorative. Above all, they are individuals who are not afraid to support each other as they grow and develop as artists together.

Throughout its existence, Irene and others have been instrumental in developing fruitful partnerships with Price’s Creamery, AmeriCorps, Mesilla Valley Youth Foundation, New Mexico State University, Doña Ana Community College, Las Cruces Public Schools, City of Las Cruces, Confucius Institute, New Mexico Community Foundation, Paso del Norte Health Foundation and numerous galleries, theaters, restaurants and local businesses. Although these relationships change from year to year, the impact of the community involvement is evident.

One of the most promising partnerships is with The Confucius Institute at NMSU which sponsors an exchange program with schools in China. This spring, 10 students were able to spend 10 days in China and next year Chinese students will visit Las Cruces. The plan is for these cultural exchanges to continue year after year. Students involved in the Chinese program have a working knowledge of Chinese and those who already know Spanish will be trilingual when they graduate, which is rare in the U.S.

Other partnerships include Price’s Creamery, who has donated milk and juice to the school from the beginning and whom the kitchen was named after Cocina de Price’s. AmeriCorps provides art integration and instructors; NMSU and DACC provide dual credit opportunities; and local businesses and galleries open their doors to seniors to do internships.
Although the community partnerships immensely enrich the curriculum, the students do not have to go beyond the staff to experience excellence. According to Sherry Carter-Doil, a local artist and teacher at Alma, “The art teachers here are all working artists, so the students get to see first-hand what that is like.” Raul Dorn (visual art), Megan McQueen (singer and actress), Roanna St. Claire (former restaurant owner), Lucy DeGuess (professional dancer), and Amy Simpson (writer) are all specialists in their art form and offer students the opportunity to participate in the life of
an artist.

Dave Million, one of the math teachers, also recognizes other things that make the teachers special. “This is a great staff. Everyone here brings something different to the classroom because we are all dedicated to something outside of being teachers,” he said. Mr. Million is an avid bike rider and participates in numerous races per year; Zeta Shearill, an English teacher, is a roller derby team member and other teachers teach classes at either DACC or NMSU in their field.

This year two teachers were recognized by the wider community. Amy Simpson was one of the seven New Mexico Golden Apple Award winners, and Rene Palomares, an AmeriCorps artist and instructor, was recognized for his contributions to art in education. With this stable core of teachers, an experienced administrator and partnerships with DACC and NMSU, Alma is poised to continue to improve year after year.

Alma d’arte truly has a bright future. As some schools find themselves struggling to find their niche, Alma has found its place. The school continues to develop both artistically and academically. Artistically, students would like to see the reintroduction of guitar. Teachers, on the other hand, would like to see a more advanced level of culinary arts and a rotating schedule for specialized classes. Academically, the number of dual credit, honors and AP classes continues to increase year after year.

Alma d’arte means “Soul of Art” and it is art that feeds the souls of administrators, teachers, and students as they work together to maintain this unique learning environment. Next time you see a Flamenco dance performance, go to a local musical, see students assisting with catering, or see a mural or a piece of art displayed in a student showcase, chances are at least one of those students participating is, or was, a student at Alma.


Summer 2011
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