Cultural program is a trip for Atlanta students

A couple dozen kindergarteners from Thomasville Heights Elementary School in southeast Atlanta nudged against each other, howling and giggling as they passed around various plants at the “herb station” in the Atlanta Botanical Garden on Monday. A girl, with vibrant yellow and green bands in her braids, screamed the loudest about the mint leaf: “It smells like bubblegum!”

About 1,500 kindergartners attended the Monday kick off of Atlanta’s Cultural Experience Project — a program that provides one field trip for every Atlanta Public Schools (APS) student from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. For the past eight years, the mayor’s office of cultural affairs and the city’s cultural venues have worked with school officials to create more than 250,000 student field trips, from the High Museum of Art and Atlanta Ballet to the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum and the Chattahoochee Nature Center.

“Every Atlanta public school student deserves the chance to be enriched by experiences in Atlanta’s premier cultural institutions,” Camille Russell Love, director of the mayor’s office of cultural affairs, said. “No matter what is going on at home, in the neighborhood or at school, students have access to the artistic excellence that can be found in our great city.”

About 76 percent of Atlanta students qualify for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty.

The Cultural Experience Project is a brainchild of Love, who said that the cost (about half a million a year) mostly comes from various donors — such as Turner Broadcasting, which covers all the transportation — while the mayor’s office covers the shortfall. The logistics of it all aren’t easy, but worth it, she said.

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“As soon as the performance started, within five minutes, you could hear a pin drop,” Love said, describing the first trip in the 2004 school year with ninth graders at the Atlanta Opera. “It brought tears to my eyes. I, then, realized that we were onto something really important.”

Mark Kent, vice president for education and community engagement at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, sees the same student reaction.

“To me, every young child represents a vessel of opportunity and potential,” he said. “They don’t have any bias yet. They are just still full of wonder and curiosity. And that is such a great moment to really lay in the arts as a crucial foundation of what their entire future can become.”

It’s important that no child is turned away because of the way hands-on experiences impact students, said APS Assistant Superintendent Linda Anderson.

“Those experiential opportunities are so important for our students because it helps learning come alive,” she said. “It’s one thing to read something in a book but it’s something else to experience it in real life.”

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