Meet the Thea Foundation: Advocating for Arts Education across Arkansas
February 12-18, 2018
By Becca Bona
“The arts are not typically valued in education,” says Paul Leopoulos, executive director of the Thea Foundation, an Argenta-based nonprofit. “And so, their real power is not on display and in practice in most of our schools.”
In a world where STEM takes the lead, art is often pushed to the side or first cut when budgets begin to shrink. For the past 17 years, Leopoulos and his team have advocated for the arts in Arkansas schools, working to provide a quality arts-infused education for all.
“All of our programs are geared to try to get parents, educational administrators from superintendents to principals, teachers, and students, to understand the value of creativity as an ingrained part of the public school culture,” says Leopoulos.
While the foundation was born out of the tragic loss of his daughter Thea Kay, and highlights her personal transformation through the arts, Leopoulos likes to focus on the future. You can hear the passion in his voice as he details the goals of the foundation – to create a culture of creativity in every school in the state by 2025.
“What we do in the foundation is key … for the last seventeen years we have been studying this and now we know,” he says.
For instance, one longitudinal study focused on measuring divergent thinking in children – the critical thinking method of taking disparate bits of information and weaving them together to approach a problem from many different angles.
Ninety eight percent of the kindergarteners tested in the study measured at the genius level for this skill. Those at the genius level at age 10 dropped to 50 percent, and continued to decrease with age. Leopoulos has an explanation for that.
“Those kindergartners – the world is still their oyster. When you take that away – which is what you do in some schools today – they have to think about math only in math class, and not how it relates to everything else on Earth. […] We’re going backwards.”
With a background in counseling education, Leopoulos understands that there are other factors at play, but he continues, “I’m saying that the arts are directly connected with how kids navigate their life. […] Even kids who are brutalized – six out of ten kids in Arkansas are in the free lunch program – even those kids can be part of that wonderful transformation in a school that runs right with the arts as a part of the culture.”
Scholarship Programs & Thea’s Art Closet
The foundation started awarding scholarships to young Arkansans interested in the arts back in 2002. To date, Thea has awarded $2.25 million in scholarships to creative young people across the state.
Impressive numbers on their own, there are a couple of unique things about these scholarships, as Leopoulos says, “We don’t care about kids’ test scores or their grade points, and we don’t care if they’re going to major in that art form. [It’s] totally inclusive.”
Education partners guarantee that those who donate to Thea will see their donations go further. There are 27 colleges and universities across the nation, including every 4-year and two 2-year colleges in Arkansas, that partner with Thea to match or exceed Thea scholarships. “Of the 333 scholarships we’ve awarded since we started, we’ve awarded one third of it, and our colleges have awarded two thirds,” says Leopoulos.
Amy Bramlett Turner, currently serving as a dance teacher at Hot Springs Junior Academy and World Class High School, said she first heard of the scholarship opportunities available to her when Paul Leopoulos gave a presentation at her high school when she was a junior in 2006. She auditioned in 2007 and received a $2,000 scholarship which helped her attend Texas Christian University where she pursued a BFA in Modern Dance and Ballet.
“The Thea Foundation is an inspirational story that should be told throughout our state at every opportunity. The Leopoulos family took an unbelievable tragedy in their lives to inspire and support generations of students in the future. Their work in the state of Arkansas, and beyond, inspires me daily to do my part as an artist, educator, and fellow Thea scholar,” she says.
As a teacher, Bramlett Turner is now able to take advantage of Thea’s other programs, like Thea’s Arts Closet. The Art Closet is a tiered program available to elementary, middle school, and high school teachers in Arkansas that typically have little-to-no budgets for teaching the arts. Thea partners with DonorsChoose, an online fundraising platform where teachers post their projects they’d like to complete with their students, but are hindered by the funds involved.
Bramlett Turner has taken advantage of this offering to her now that she’s an educator and dance teacher.
“Without the support of the Thea Foundation, my students would not have felt the confidence gained by the support of the community. […] With this standard of high expectations where all students have shoes, dance apparel, costumes, and needed production items, they begin to hold themselves and each other accountable for their actions, attendance, and effort. They find safety and trust within our dance program which gives many of them a sense of belonging and home, where they can escape the negative chaos of life,” she says.
“How do we reverse the trend of school districts saying, ‘We don’t have the budget this year so we’ll get rid of that art teacher, we’ll get rid of the band?’” asks Leopoulos.
One way the foundation has started to unravel this conundrum is through Thea’s Arts Reconstruction program. The program aims to help fund new programs while augmenting existing ones in Arkansas’ public schools, which is a win-win for everyone involved, as students who are enrolled in classes where the arts are prominent are less likely to have disciplinary issues.
Sarolta Brannen, a teacher at Sylvan Hills High School, has taught art for four years – two of which have coincided with the reconstruction program. Her involvement allowed Brannen’s art department to expand offerings through specialized equipment for crafts, like paper-making, metal projects, and more.
“Through the Arts Reconstruction program, I have been able to make connections with artists at UA Little Rock and different schools in Central Arkansas. […] The collaboration and experiences with other art professionals in the two week program were invaluable,” she says.
Also, in Brannen’s particular program, students are able to get a more interdisciplinary view, for instance, they’re able to see how science and art connect more clearly.
“This nine weeks we are planning a unit together about glazing. We are hoping to mix the ingredients and talk about the oxidizing process that the glazes go through in the kiln. Like the previous lesson[s], we will make sure all of the students are involved in a hands on activity. The chemistry and art department will continue to work on projects together in the future,” she explains.
Arkansas A+ Schools
In 2011, the Thea Foundation brought A+ schools to Arkansas. Starting in North Carolina in 1995, the nationally implemented, research-based program aims to incorporate art throughout every subject in schools.
Essentially, disciplinary action is needed less often, because students are engaged in learning and teachers are happy. “The outcome is nothing less than amazing,” says Leopoulos, as he details the success an example Arkansas school saw – from 273 disciplinary issues down to three.
“My plan was to get A+ started,” says Leopoulos, “And now the University of Arkansas wanted to really make it even more successful across the state, so we’ve passed it off to them.”
As a nonprofit, the Thea Foundation relies heavily on donations and fundraising to keep their programs alive and well. On April 28, 2018, the foundation presents their annual fundraising event at the Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Arkansas at Pulaski Tech.
The night consists of a cocktail hour, performances from past scholarship winners, and the presentation of the Pillar of the Arts award. Tickets are $100.
The foundation is also implementing a membership program, which Thea’s Director of Development, Jennifer Owens, calls “the Netflix approach” to giving. You can sign up for various levels of giving on a monthly basis, and in return you receive a few perks back – like tickets to Thea’s Art Department series.
For more information on fundraising events or to get involved visit https://www.theafoundation.org/.
A White Hall High School student shows off a paper dragon she made using supplies funded by Thea’s Art Closet. (Photo by Mark Fonville, Courtesy of The Thea Foundation)