YSU Students Open Doors to Creativity Through SMARTS Program

By Frances Clause

While Youngstown State University students are preparing for the spring semester, some are also preparing to teach spring classes at SMARTS, a community art school opening doors to creativity in the Valley.

SMARTS, which is short for Students Motivated by the Arts, provides curriculum-focused programming for music, dance, theater, visual arts and creative writing. It has been serving the youth of the Mahoning Valley since 1997.

According to Natalie Wright, SMARTS’ staff administrator, YSU student assistants and those enrolled in their classes benefit from the school’s experiences in different ways.

“Students who go through SMARTS here get a quality arts education and access to different art classes they may not have had in the past,” she said. “And [YSU] student assistants get a great experience here to not only see those children learn and grow, but they also get teaching experience, as well.”

Dagmar Stahl, a junior dance management major, was 7 years old when she enrolled in classes at SMARTS, and she now teaches classes of her own.

“I think as someone who’s an art major of some form, [SMARTS] really allowed me to explore all of my interests in art before picking something I knew I wanted to do,” she said. “Even though I loved to dance growing up, it was still so nice to be able to explore visual art, music and all of these different things so that I wouldn’t feel I was missing out.”

Stahl said returning to SMARTS to teach was always in the back of her mind, and it was refreshing to have a job working alongside other art majors from YSU.

“I don’t really get to see [other art majors] that much during the day on campus, so it’s nice to be able to create relationships with artists that are different than me but still artists at the same time,” she said.

Claire Lyons, a YSU student assistant at SMARTS, demonstrates on her violin while students learn about the instrument. Photo courtesy of SMARTS

Sarah Schwenke, a senior music performance major, has been a student assistant at SMARTS for two years and is currently teaching an inner rhythms class, where her students experiment with hand drumming.

“Overall, I just really hope that I can help instill a love of music in my students that will stay with them well after they leave my class,” she said.

One of Schwenke’s favorite experiences through SMARTS has been its annual “Art You Can See” and “Art You Can Hear” programs that take place when students finish their classes for the term.

“These programs give the students an opportunity to showcase what they have been learning in their classes and perform for their parents and the community,” she said. “It’s really special to see young students go up in front of the audience and rock their piano solos, rock band performances, compositions and so much more.”

Schwenke said that for many students in the Youngstown area, SMARTS serves as their only way to access a quality arts education.

“Being that SMARTS classes are completely free, it bridges many gaps by providing equal access to a quality arts education to all students,” she said.

Max Franko, a junior music composition major, echoed Schwenke and believes the amount of students that continue to register for SMARTS’ proves interest in the arts isn’t gone.

“It is a wonderful thing to be able to provide writing, theater, dance, music and visual art to kids that cannot access it through their schools,” he said. “And to think they can get all that and more for free is very unique.”

Franko has been teaching at SMARTS for almost three years and leads his students through piano lab classes.

“[My] students should leave knowing they have the ability to pass their new knowledge and culture in a way that lifts people up and brings them together,” he said. “While not everyone will grow up to become a rock star pianist, the hope is that they stick with it enough for it to shape them and those around them for the rest of their lives.”

To become a student assistant, volunteer or SMARTS student, see the applications available at www.smartsartschool.org.