By Martha Barksdale

As it works toward fulfilling its mission of improving the lives and enriching the learning of children through high-quality arts, Young Audiences, Woodruff Arts Center (YAWAC), has reached more than 640,000 children in 50 Georgia counties. With school beginning this month, Young Audiences is preparing to take off in high gear with its proven brand of arts-in-education programming, including several new programs.

The largest arts education program in the southeast, YAWAC is part of the 31-chapter national Young Audiences program. In Atlanta, Young Audiences began with nine artists in 1983 and now has more than 65 artists on its roster. Young Audiences became one of the branches of the Woodruff Arts Center in 2005, a move that YAWAC Executive Director Tony Kimbrell called “a big deal.”

Kimbrell said becoming one of the branches of the Woodruff Arts Center puts Young Audiences in the company of the High Museum, the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta Symphony and the 14th Street Playhouse. “It really raises our visibility. I think it helps us attract board members,” Kimbrell said.

Beginning this school year, YAWAC will be the contact point for schools that wish to visit or work with any of the Woodruff Arts Center’s divisions.  YAWAC will facilitate programs for student groups. “Before, you had to call the High or wherever individually to make plans. But now there will be one phone number that schools or young people’s groups can call, and we will work with them on planning.”

YAWAC touches the lives and learning of children and teens in a variety of ways, but probably is best known for its assembly programs in which artists from the Young Audiences roster put on shows for the children. Kimbrell said they have probably 60 different programs they can present, bringing a variety of art forms to students, along with giving them a taste of various cultures from around the world.

Often the assemblies are combined with an artist-in-residence program to give the students an intensive look at a particular subject. “During a 45- or 50-minute program, the kids get a lot of information about various subjects–history, geography and so forth,” Kimbrell said. He said these assemblies are often the first time children have seen a live performance. “It can be life-changing,” he said.

YAWAC’s signature program, smART stART, helps kindergarteners in metro Atlanta’s Title I schools gain literacy skills. “The artist works with children on specific outcomes,” Kimbrell said. “They use music, dance, visual arts and theater so the students connect literacy concepts with a fun arts activity. Our artists work closely with the teachers to plan these activities.”

A new project of YAWAC, Arts for Learning Lessons, is part of a national Young Audiences effort aimed at achieving specific outcomes in students in grades two through five. Art for Learning Lessons combines the discipline and creativity of the arts with learning science to raise student achievement in reading and writing. Young Audiences trains teachers to deliver in-classroom instruction in an extended day format, then a Young Audiences teaching artist leads a five-unit program utilizing a particular art form.

Arts for Learning Lessons was tested this year in seven DeKalb County schools from January through April.  This year the students in after-school programs examined the life and career of baseball great and humanitarian the late Roberto Clemente. “They read about his life, then had to retell his story through a collage. The children learn how to absorb a story, understand it and use narrative expression to pass it on,” Kimbrell noted.

As the pilot program neared its end in the DeKalb schools, the students had to take the required Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.  “Those kids in the arts program scored higher on the CRCTs,” Kimbrell said. “We also commissioned an independent evaluation–a study of the program nationally–and are looking forward to seeing those results.”  YAWAC is hoping to expand the program to other DeKalb schools this school year.

Another new program Kimbrell and YAWAC are excited about is a digital storytelling residency. Piloted this spring at Atlanta’s Grady High, the digital storytelling residency was funded through a donation from Turner Broadcasting System Inc.  The program helps kids learn to tell stories using technology. “They put together scripts, edited raw footage to tell their personal stories,” said Kimbrell. “They had some powerful stories. Many of them are from difficult home situations.”

The students visited Turner Broadcasting and saw a real-world application of the skills they had studied in the classroom. Kimbrell said they are now accepting applications from other high schools that might want to be involved in the program in the future.

As for YAWAC’s future, Kimbrell said they’d like to begin programming for pre-kindergarten students. Expanding their summer offerings is also a priority, he noted. “We don’t necessarily have to work with schools,” Kimbrell said. “We can go anywhere there are kids.”

For more information on YAWAC, visit or call (404) 733-5293.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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