Arts educators get help prepping for new year at E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative Kickoff


Yeatman Middle School vocal music teacher Cornelia Tolbert speaks with Aurelia Hartenberger about the Hartenberger World Music Collection of Historical Instruments during the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative Kickoff on July 31 at The Sheldon. The eclectic collection has over 3,000 musical instruments and artifacts, and area educators can request for a display to be made at that their schools. (Photos by Derik Holtmann)

Fine and performing arts educators and coordinators from across the St. Louis region strolled around the ballroom at last week at The Sheldon, gazing at the eclectic collection of historic musical instruments from World Music LLC laid out on one table. They had a chance to spin a wheel to win raffle prizes from The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at another and could pause to take photos in front of a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra backdrop that made it seem like they were standing inside Powell Symphony Hall.

They also spent a fair amount of time conversing and networking with each other as they looked ahead to the upcoming school year during the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative Kickoff event held July 31.

More than 70 teachers and coordinators from the Collaborative’s 14 partner school districts registered to attend the annual event, and they were joined by representatives from each of the 25 fine arts partner organizations such as Jazz St. Louis, Gateway Music Outreach, Pianos for People and St. Louis Classical Guitar.

Michael Smith holds a mic and stands in a room full of people talking to the crowd

Michael V. Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education, speaks to local educators during a kickoff event for the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative.

Michael V. Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, directs the collaborative and led the event.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to network and to meet the people that they hope to serve face to face,” Smith said.

The Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative is dedicated to enhancing the quality, influence, attitudes and accessibility of fine arts by connecting educators, artists and performers with students in the St. Louis area, and it places an emphasis on supporting underserved populations. It aims to increase and enhance arts education programming for an ethnically and culturally diverse population where most students qualify for free and reduced-cost meals.

As part of UMSL’s contributions, the university hosts a Des Lee Fine Arts Middle School Festival and a Des Lee Fine Arts High School Festival annually that bring hundreds of students to campus each year and provides opportunities to enhance their skills, perform with other musicians of varying levels of experience and showcase their artwork.

Two of Smith’s colleagues in the Department of Music – Professor and Chair Joanna Mendoza and Assistant Teaching Professor David Wacyk – were also on hand at the kickoff event and offered the services of UMSL faculty members to lead master classes or clinics to support the work of area teachers.

The cost of arts education can be high, so the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative aims to be a connector that helps educators work with local arts organizations to provide opportunities they can’t always provide on their own.

UMSL Professor Joanna Mendoza talks at the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative Kickoff as colleagues Dave Wacyk and Michael Smith watch

Professor Joanna Mendoza, chair of the Department of Music and a member of the Arianna String Quartet, discussed opportunities for local educators to partner with UMSL faculty members.

“We make sure that underserved populations have the same sorts of opportunities that some of the more affluent districts have,” Smith said. “That was Des Lee’s intent. There are people from theater, dance, people from music, visual arts and others at the event.”

Teachers and administrators of participating school districts appreciate the opportunity to give their students exposure to fine arts educational experiences.

Every year, Allison Felter, the director of education and engagement at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, looks forward to immersing students in opera.

“We have programming for K-12 students,” Felter said. “We have things called arts intensives, which are eight- to 10-week residencies where we send teaching artists into the classroom to work with a specific group of kids, and they write a story. Then we take them through the paces of setting the words to music. When we do the full-blown version, we’ll hire an orchestrator to take those melodies and write them all out for various instruments.

“So, the end product is the students perform their own work. It’s a world premiere – nobody else has seen it. They perform with a small orchestra. This can be on any subject matter. If schools want to partner with their social studies department or their science department, they can write an opera about the tropical rainforest if they wanted. It’s just a great tool for learning.”

Attendees sit at round tables in a ballroom and listen during the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative Kickoff event

More than 70 area fine and performing arts educators and coordinators registered to attend the kickoff event at the Sheldon.

Suzanne Palmer, the director of fine arts for the Normandy Schools Collaborative, has been working with the Des Lee Collaborative for two decades and greatly values how the services supplement her arts education curriculum and even help transport students to events.

“I participated in the collaborative for many years,” Palmer said. “This is my 36th year teaching, and I have been affiliated with the Des Lee Collaborative for almost all of that time since it started. I started in St. Louis Public Schools. I find that this program is very beneficial to my students with all the programs that are offered to students, especially students who maybe perhaps can’t afford to pay for field trips. My district uses the free bus transportation. It’s just been very beneficial in that way.”

Smith believes in the power of collaboration and hopes support from the Collaborative and funding from his Des Lee endowed professorship can enhance fine arts education, providing professional development for teachers and experiential learning opportunities for students.

“I call it systemic collective impact,” he said. “We are stronger together. The analogy is that it’s a bit like making stone soup. You know, everybody comes and brings a little something and before you know it, we have a roomful of people here, giving away raffle prizes and teachers getting pumped for the year and ready with resources. There’s curriculum involved here, there’s instructors involved here, and it’s pretty exciting.”