The Coca-Cola Foundation, Atlanta Ballet partner to bring dance to Hollis Innovation Academy
On Atlanta’s Historic Westside, partnerships and collaboration are paramount to progress, and the work happening to fuel the success of Vine City’s Hollis Innovation Academy offers a wonderful illustration.
Since opening its doors in 2016, Hollis has been supported in its mission to bring high-quality education to the community’s youth by organizations and entities across the city’s public, private and nonprofit sectors.
One of the first to make a major commitment to Hollis, through Westside Future Fund’s cradle-to-career education impact strategy, was The Coca-Cola Foundation. In the nearly three years since the announcement of their initial investment, the Foundation’s dedication to Hollis has not waned. In fact, they’ve expanded their impact by bringing others to the table.
In June of 2018, The Coca-Cola Foundation granted Atlanta Ballet $300,000 to forge a partnership with Hollis to provide after-school and in-school dance programs for its more than 500 students, beginning with the 2018-19 school year.
The goal of the partnership: to bring quality dance education to children who might not otherwise have access to the arts and provide an alternative learning environment that encourages self-confidence, discipline, self-expression and social awareness.
The program has done just that. At the beginning of the 18-19 school year, each Hollis student was given the opportunity to choose dance. Now, five days a week, the self-selected students attend class with program instructor Alexis Whitehead-Polk, or “Ms. Lexi” as she’s known to the students.
Atlanta Ballet worked with Hollis to integrate the class into Hollis’ curriculum and schedule to ensure the students feel that dance class is a regular part of their school day.
“My dance students at Hollis are creative, clever and expressive,” said Whitehead-Polk, glowingly, of her students. “Each student has developed their own relationship with movement and dance. It is truly a lovely sight to see them like – and some even love – to dance.”
As a bonus, students also receive additional guidance and instruction from Atlanta Ballet’s community partnerships manager, Diane Caroll Sales, whose professional dance training began at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York and The Ailey School. She is also an original member of the Atlanta-based Ballethnic Dance Company, a dancer with Ailey II and a former principal dancer with Donald Byrd/The Group.
The dance program offers students the opportunity to learn dance skills, a healthy living regimen, and an awareness of the role that the arts can play in their lives. Both programs culminate in a final performance for their peers, faculty, parents and community members at the end of each semester.
“My favorite moments are when I see them encouraging each other and reminding each other, and sometimes even myself, that ‘we are the best and nothing less!’ I even made the mantra into a chant, and we do it every class. Dance can get challenging and at times you need a reminder that you can do it,” said Whitehead-Polk.
This was evident at the Hollis December community meeting, where the dancers made their school debut. Despite nerves and jitters, the dancers rallied one another and delivered a sweet performance to their peers, met with loud applause and lots of Hollis “shout-outs,” the school’s special way of supporting and recognizing each other.
“They were so happy and proud,” said Sales of the students. “You could see it on their faces. They felt special and that was the most important thing. I always tell them, ‘You’re the most special person.’ I also really admired them for their courage to get up and dance in front of their peers and reveal something that no one knows about them.”
“Their growth and level of maturity are starting to shine through. I saw a drastic change in them from the beginning of the school year to the performance,” Sales added. “They were able to see the result of their hard work and effort, and that we can translate into other areas of life.”
“I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to expose our students to the art of ballet, which has been so invaluable to our community,” said Dr. Diamond Ford, Hollis principal.
“It’s no secret that I strongly believe in building students’ self-efficacy, and the sky is the limit when there is access to enriching experiences like these, which serve as vehicles to further empower and improve student achievement,” Ford continued.
“What truly makes this partnership such an incredible enhancement to our school is the fact that it fully embodies an inclusive practice of special education, allowing ALL of our students to participate, which is such a perfect example of the Hollis Habits (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Empathy, Perseverance, and Self-Discipline) woven into the fabric of our programming.”
A Long-Standing Commitment to Atlanta’s Westside
Since 1999, Atlanta Ballet has proudly had a presence on the Westside. First with the West End Performing Arts Center and then expansion in 2010 to City of Refuge, a homeless transitional facility.
Sales, who oversees all of Atlanta Ballet’s community engagement programs, was thrilled to have a pipeline. Students who begin at West End and City of Refuge will now see familiar faces at Hollis and can possibly feed into Atlanta Ballet’s AileyCamp summer program, which is also presented locally by Atlanta Ballet. They also receive tickets to attend Atlanta Ballet company performances.
“I love that we have the overlap across programs. It gives me an opportunity to check on them and see them in other areas of life,” said Sales, recognizing the unique circumstances faced by many of her Westside students.
“I’m always concerned about their stability and the people in their lives. It’s felt good, for example, running into the kids from City of Refuge at Hollis. They are excited to see me! They enjoy seeing familiar faces. It’s hard when you don’t know what tomorrow brings, so it makes it more important for us to be consistent. Having a greater presence helps with that. ”
Because of the increased engagement, they also now have greater opportunity for scholarships to study full-time with Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education.
Sales has already seen a number of students grow through the Atlanta Ballet programs, including a number of stand-outs who now train, on scholarship, with Atlanta Ballet. One, in particular, is now in 5th grade at Hollis, but started with Atlanta Ballet during her time at City of Refuge.
For more information on Atlanta Ballet and its community engagement programs, visit www.centre.atlantaballet.com/community-programs.