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Community School of the Arts

Story by Megan Venable | Photography courtesy of CSA

In 1991, a group at First Presbyterian Church grew concerned that children were not receiving adequate training in music and other fine arts in the public school system. With the assistance of other regional leaders, the group organized the Community School of the Arts (CSA), whose mission is to empower students using art as a vehicle.

Students are recommended for the program through a variety of ways, but they are accepted on the basis of financial need. Children are selected for the program at age seven or eight, and most remain until age 18. Current enrollment is 125. The school has graduated several professional artists and musicians, but not all graduates become arts professionals. Executive Director Jennifer Willard points to recent alumni success stories: an executive chef for Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a software designer for Airbnb and a newly-graduated nurse.

“The best part of the program is watching them grow up,” Willard says. Violin instructor Mary Pulgar says the students appreciate the professional instruction provided by the CSA. Many of Pulgar’s students have taken advantage of lessons to enable them to play for their church families, to join the Knoxville Youth Symphony Orchestra or simply to make music for their own enjoyment. Pulgar says parents are grateful for the lessons their children receive; some wish they had had the same opportunity. All students participate in the school’s biannual recitals.

In 1997, the CSA initiated the Side By Side program. Through this program, an experienced working artist is paired with a student and serves as that student’s mentor. The year-long project ends with an art show and fundraiser for the school.

CSA alumna Grace Gish spent several years working with Knoxville ceramicist Peter Rose, who taught her “patience along with pottery.” In her experience, the program is “a place to be discovered, to feel safe in self-expression and to make lifelong friendships.”

Gish, who is currently studying welding technology at Pellissippi State Community College and working part time as an assistant to artist Richard Jolley, says the school gave her the opportunity to find her strength and passion for creating with her hands and mind alike.

Executive Director Willard is excited about the future of the Community School of the Arts, especially now that the organization has moved to Church Street United Methodist Church.

“This move happened at the right time and is such a blessing,” said Willard. “It has set another path and another direction for us for the next 20 years.”

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