New Ballet Ensemble strengthens Orange Mound outreach

New Ballet Ensemble & School has been given a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support its continued work helping children and families at Dunbar Elementary School in Orange Mound.

New Ballet Ensemble’s community partnerships in Orange Mound centers around its family resource center at Dunbar Elementary. The center was launched earlier this year with the support of ArtsMemphis. Parents and guardians of New Ballet Ensemble students can use the center to build their computer proficiencies, attend finance and GED workshops, and find assistance in drafting resumes, filling out job applications and develop job-readiness skills.

“It means we can teach these classes at the end of the school day now,” said Katie Smythe, CEO and Artistic Director, about the grant’s impact. “We still need to raise money for scholarships, which will be 40 children if we can achieve our goal of getting that many parents involved. We hope to get the family involved. That’s why we opened the family resource center.”

The work New Ballet does in the Orange Mound community dates back much earlier. Smythe grew up in Midtown Memphis and has fond memories of visiting Orange Mound with her father. She understood its historical significance as the first African-American community developed outside Harlem.

But after leaving Memphis for 17 years, she returned home to see how much Orange Mound had changed. She strategically placed New Ballet in Cooper-Young, but realized the best way to engage Orange Mound’s youth was to be imbedded in the community.

A grant in 2009 enabled the organization to take up residence in Dunbar Elementary, and the students in turn began finding their way outside their community.

“Before we knew it we were bringing in children to Cooper-Young and they were becoming part of a family of children from across Memphis,” Smythe said. “They were being exposed to cultures they hadn’t seen before, children from wealth, middle class and poverty and they were all learning about each other. Dunbar is an essential ingredient for our ability to develop a diverse group of dancers.”

Smythe said involvement in New Ballet Ensemble has been important for the students’ development with ACT scores going up five and six points and many students attending college.

On an annual basis a minimum of 30 students are served at Dunbar. It’s closer to 60 this year.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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