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Arts Promote Mental Health In Cleveland Schools

Kindergartners at Harvey Rice in Cleveland drum during a SAFE project session. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]
Kindergartners at Harvey Rice in Cleveland drum and chant in class.

When students arrive at school their job is to learn, but things like violence at home or worries about safety may come along, too.

“If we don't deal with those, it makes learning difficult, makes being able to grasp concepts difficult,” said Jason Tidmore, Sr., principal of Harvey Rice in Cleveland. 

One of the ways they try to address that at Harvey Rice, a pre-K through 8 school, is through arts programming with a focus on self-expression. The SAFE Project (Students Are Free to Express) is a partnership with MetroHealth system, which provides arts lessons for kids in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade as well as teens in high school. Visiting artists from Kulture Kids, an arts-learning non-profit, come to the classroom for sessions in both visual and performing arts.

“We knew that different arts would speak to different children,” said Linda Jackson, director of arts in medicine at MetroHealth.

SAFE aims to help students in high school cope with toxic stress or trauma. In early childhood, the objective is to build emotional understanding in students so they can express their feelings. 

Teaching artist Andrea Belser makes an angry face while teaching first graders at Harvey Rice about emotions. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]

On a recent morning at Harvey Rice, teaching artist Andrea Belser made an angry face and cued the class of first graders to ask her why she was angry.

The session introduced a way to talk about various feelings while also providing a lesson in theatrical expression.

 “OK, so now you know what anger is. You know what makes you angry? But let's start thinking about the choices we make when we're angry,” Belser said.  

The SAFE program emerged in response to the number of high school students MetroHealth doctors screened who felt anxious, depressed or suicidal. During follow up conversations, Dr. Lisa Ramirez, director of community and behavioral health at MetroHealth, said students brought up stressors like gun violence in the community and housing instability.

“It was really concerning to me that some students needed therapy, and we were able to try and get them in,” Ramirez said. “But [for] many of them it wasn't therapy that they needed. They really needed the proverbial hug.”

High school teacher Jenna Neiderkorn said this program has helped her students at John Adams talk about difficult things like shooting deaths and poverty.

“Some of the conversations are uncomfortable, but it allows a space for it to open up,” Neiderkorn said.

A recent craft her class worked on prompted 9 th and 10 th graders to consider a dream for the future. The students were to draw two symbols, one representing the dream and another depicting what it would take to achieve it.

Dakota Farley and Kashmere Huff talk about their dreams as part of an art project at John Adams in Cleveland. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]

“I’m going to put an animal, because I want to be a veterinarian,” said Kashmere Huff.

Her classmate, Dakota Farley, smiled as she said “teeth” would represent her goal to be an orthodontist.

The SAFE program nearly doubled this school year and serves about 800 students in elementary and high school grades at a handful of Cleveland schools. It’s funded with philanthropic support, and the goal is to continue expanding it in the future. 

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.