Nearly 125,000 students went back to school in Duval County this week. It’s also the time when a local nonprofit is gearing up for a new year of education — but it’s not about reading, writing and arithmetic.
Instead, it’s about music, dance, theater and visual art.
Cathedral Arts Project began in 1993 when a small group of people at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral wanted to offer some children in the neighborhood a firsthand experience in arts and culture.
That first dance class of 10 students from a transitional housing facility has grown to comprise about 1,000 students and nearly 30 instructors.
“We supplement the in-class curriculum with after school programs,” said the Rev. Kimberly Hyatt, president and CEO of Cathedral Arts Project since 2002.
The nonprofit provides more than 50 programs during the school year and more than 20 programs during summer break at 32 partnering schools and community centers.
The arts education is provided at no cost to students. It’s supported primarily by contributions from corporations and individual benefactors who appreciate the value of making culture available to young people.
According to data collected by the organization and Duval County Public Schools over the past nine years, 96 percent of the students involved in Cathedral Arts’ programs have demonstrated growth in not only the arts, but in basic life skills as well.
Cathedral Arts students showed an 83 percent improvement in actively participating in class sessions, 85 percent improved in working on a task from beginning to end, 83 percent improved in communicating effectively with adults and 83 percent improved in behaving cooperatively with a group.
Most of the program participants attend public schools in low-income neighborhoods, which can create a challenge when it comes to access to the performing and visual arts.
“We maintain focus on providing an arts education to students who probably wouldn’t have it otherwise,” said Hyatt.
In January, the organization’s staff of 12 moved from offices in Southside to the historic Elks Building Downtown, a few blocks from St. John’s Cathedral.
“We have come back to our roots,” Hyatt said.
The new address has about double the floor space of the previous office, which makes it easy for teachers to congregate and work together to improve what the organization offers.
The office is within walking distance of Jacksonville’s main arts, culture and education venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, the Main Library, Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts and the Florida Theatre.
The board room doubles as event space for receptions and presentations and the covered porch, with its view of Laura Street, is a casual place to work when the weather cooperates.
It’s also a performance space for students during Art Walk and One Spark, Hyatt said.
The hallways in the office are art galleries, exhibiting the work of students and teachers.
In addition to allowing the organization to be near the city’s cultural venues, relocating to the urban core has been a hit with the people who work in the office.
The move “really enhanced staff morale,” Hyatt said.
“We’re more connected and everybody is proud to be working Downtown.”