By Kristi Casey Sanders

In Atlanta, less than half of all inner-city students graduate high school. Throughout America, barely half of the students in the 50 biggest cities graduate, with 1.2 million students dropping out of school every year. The National Center for Policy Analysis estimates each dropout will cost his or her state $4,168 every year for the rest of their lives in increased Medicaid costs, incarceration costs and loss of tax revenue.

Ironically, the best solution cities have discovered is something that’s being eliminated from many public schools: arts education. Since enrolling at-risk pre-teens in a dance, singing and creative writing camp called STARS, the city of Fort Myers, Fla., has seen a 27 percent drop in juvenile crime. Adding an aggressive arts education program to its curriculum has doubled the graduation rate of the “last chance” students enrolled at the Ulster-BOCES Alternative School in Tillson, N.Y.

In Atlanta, the Fox Theatre has begun offering AileyCamp, a summer dance camp for at-risk youth, aged 11-14. The four-week program, based on a curriculum developed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, teaches young adults discipline, cooperation and perseverance through dance, music, art, creative communications and personal development workshops. This is AileyCamp’s second year in Atlanta.

Each child accepted into the program is given a full scholarship, underwritten by the Fox Theatre. They apply through local Boys and Girls clubs, middle schools and the Fox Theatre Web site, and are interviewed one-on-one by Sarah duBignon, Fox Theatre’s outreach director, and Diane Sales, the director of Atlanta’s AileyCamp.

“What we’re looking for is someone who has some academic, or social or domestic challenges; someone who has not been exposed to the arts,” Sales says. “The benefits of the program [exist] because there is no prior dance training; it is used as a vehicle for developing their creative self-expression.”

The program requires discipline and focus – skills children also need to succeed academically – and encourages critical thinking. By encouraging participants to express themselves and validating their creativity, AileyCamp helps build campers’ self-esteem. Creative writing classes help them catch up to grade-level in skills they may lack. Visual art classes create another safe environment in which the young adults learn to express themselves and work together. Because AileyCamp students often are exposed to drugs, violence, alcohol and sex where they live, role-playing sessions during camp address those issues and show campers what the consequences of the decisions they make might be.

“It’s a crucial time in a preteen’s life, and decision-making is taking sway,” Sales explains. “AileyCamp is there to be a support system for those decisions and helps them be more independent. This program lets them realize that … any decision they make now will affect them for the rest of their life. Ultimately, it’s their decision to take that [good] path or not, but as long as I know we’ve directed them that way, that’s fulfilling.”

Sales stays in touch with AileyCamp participants throughout the school year to follow their progress and offer support. This summer, she got to work with eight returning campers. “I definitely saw a big change,” she says. “One lady was not confident with her shoe size last year. It was embarrassing, for her, to be a size 12 or 13. This year she was so confident. Once you have the support of someone to let you know that it’s OK to be who you are … it makes a big difference for a teenager.”

For more information about the AileyCamp program, or to sponsor a child, click here or call Sarah duBignon 404-881-2087.