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ANNUAL REPORT 2019 – 2020

When our schoolhouse closed, we learned that the Eliot School was greater than just a building. We learned that our strength and perseverance lived in the hearts and minds of you—our students, teachers, donors, and staff. You brought the spirit and the values of the Eliot School into your homes, your communities, and online. You were determined to sustain the vitality, creativity, and the good that we do in our communities through arts education—and we are grateful. As we turn a corner on the uncertainty of the past year, we need your support, now more than ever. Please help us work step by step toward a truly vibrant season of new beginnings.

— Abigail Norman, Executive Director

“We will continue to support our teachers, listen to our students, and do all we can do to fulfill our mission: inspiring lifelong learning in craft and creativity for all.” — Abigail Norman

The Eliot School’s partnerships with Boston Public Schools date back to 1874. The year before COVID, we taught more than 2,000 children in classrooms around Boston, as well as 15 young people recruited from those classrooms into our intensive Teen Bridge program. When we work with a school, we develop long-term, multi-year relationships with principals, teachers, and students, teaching art and woodworking along with their other scheduled classes, all year long. We were embedded in those schools as part of the fabric of what they offer their kids—our kids. So, when COVID hit, our teachers worked with BPS developing our online classrooms and assembling art kits for kids to use at home.

Our entire team mobilized with incredible speed. Our teachers taught from their living rooms, with their families and pets in the house. Teen Bridge moved instantly online. Our Artist-in-Residence program went instantly online, and I am incredibly proud of our team, our artists, and our young people for the energy and the creativity with which they embraced all the technology and all the challenges.

What did we lose?

During normal times, we typically partner with a dozen or more public schools and up to twenty other sites each year—Boston Public Libraries, Boston Centers for Youth and Families, and so on. When in-person learning was suspended, our community-based partners suspended their after-school programs. Yet we managed to teach some 1,300 BPS students in this pandemic year.

The pandemic completely shut down our in-person classes. A bank loan and federal relief funds allowed us to keep paying teachers and staff through June. But in July, I sent an email furloughing 80 faculty members. That was one of the harshest days in my entire working life.

Now we have the opportunity to plan for rebuilding better than we were before. It will take us a couple of years, as people gradually feel safe returning to close quarters indoors. We’ll have a brand new clean air system, and safety protocols. We’ll be working on increased racial equity across all of our programs.

Click here to learn more about our school and community partnerships.

The vision of affirming classrooms lives in Alison.

I am a woodworker and have been Program Director at the Eliot School for eight years. l started as a woodworking teacher in the Boston Public schools and saw first-hand some of the classroom challenges that all teachers experience. We recognized that our students and teachers have a variety of identities and that all young people engage in their learning differently. All of our kids had social, emotional needs that we wanted to be able to meet. So, the Eliot School held workshops about classroom management, culturally responsive curriculum, and trauma-informed teaching practices.

Still, we wanted to think of professional development as an arc and support our teachers in this work further. Executive Director Abigail Norman and I just committed one day to invest in a deep-dive professional development series. We focused the first year on racial justice, with intensive workshops available to everyone: BPS teachers, teaching artists, charter school teachers. We had a great turnout and response, which told us people needed this. The next year we focused on social/emotional learning. And then the pandemic hit.

People were getting sick, dying. Young people no longer had the support in school or at home that they used to. Racial injustice was bubbling up in the society as a whole. Art teachers were saying our classrooms could be a space for young people to process this experience.

Quickly, we planned a four-week series called SPEAC, Supporting the Processing of Experiences through the Arts during COVID. We collaborated with two partners also doing great work, Open Door Arts and Wheelock Family Theater. About 70 teachers completed the series. We talked about implicit bias, the history of education through the lens of race and disability. We dove into the social/emotional needs of students and teachers, and strategies to celebrate and affirm their identities.

The feedback was amazing. One teacher said, “I wish I had gotten this before when I was in school learning to be an art teacher.” There was a lot of personal growth. Pretty quickly, the teachers built trust and community, and tapped into the vulnerability needed to truly re-envision what teaching art can be.

Click here to learn more about our professional development for teachers.

The passion for youth development lives in Jen.

The best part of working in Boston Public Schools is being part of that larger community. (such interconnectedness yet separate individual personalities for each school) and being able to help youth development in the city that I love and have lived in for so long. I’ve worked at Boston Green Academy for three years.

When COVID hit, like many people watching the news for updates from the mayor, we were expecting that in two or three weeks, we’d be back. Then the mayor said seven weeks, eight weeks. My first thought was, if I’m feeling a little anxious about this, how are my youth feeling? Some students were terrified. Some students were thinking of summer vacation.

For myself, art was a way to process complex emotions. Knowing that my students wouldn’t necessarily be able to engage with their community in the same way or be with each other, I wanted to make sure that they had access to creative materials in their homes.

I created art kits, so everybody got a bag with a sewing needle, thread, fabric, felts. Some got crayons, watercolors, washable markers, paper. That way, even if they weren’t going to come to online classes, they had familiar materials that they could work through.

With the murder of George Floyd, we paused all of our planned online art challenges to talk about what the students were feeling. They brought up Ahmaud Arbrey, Breonna Taylor, and they mentioned that their voices aren’t always heard and if they are heard they’re not respected or listened to. So we gave the option. Do you want to work on this art project to help emotionally, or do you want to do a piece of artivism where your voices could be seen?

Click here to learn more about our school and community partnerships.

The heritage to sew and repair lives in Carol.

My dad taught me how to sew. My dad was a tailor in the United States army and served for 23 years. He comes from a family where everybody sews. His mother made beautiful quilts. His sisters did wedding dresses. My grandmother thought it was important that even the guys should know how to sew and be able to repair their own clothing. Everybody should be able to sew a button back on.

My favorite part of sewing is pretty much coming up with the concept of how I want something and look, and then as I'm sewing, it evolves into something else. I've been working at the Eliot School since 2004. I love teaching, particularly when someone comes in my classroom who doesn't know how to sew. People come to my classroom with a desire to learn and leave with the ability to learn. That's rewarding to me. Through the classes I’ve met different people from all walks of life. Some people that were my students, ended up being friends. There is such a caring community. When the schoolhouse closed there was definitely a sense of sadness, just to be cut off from what you enjoy. I miss teaching.

It absolutely does help to be creative during this pandemic because it allows you to focus on something other than all the negativity that's going on in the world. I was happy to make masks for others, to help other people and still be creative. Some people were looking at this pandemic like it was a time of doom, which it was. It was a sad time, but like they say, “crisis creates opportunity.” It gave me that opportunity to use my skills to help others. My phone was ringing off the hook for the masks. I gave masks to strangers I met on the street, to people in my neighborhood. One lady I gave a mask to actually started crying, she just thought it was so beautiful.

Our interview with Carol Price happened to take place around the 2-year anniversary of the passing of her son Kendric Price. A beloved son, basketball player, coach, and youth mentor, Kendric was murdered in 2019. We are grateful to Carol for granting the interview and for donning her professional modelling skills for our photo shoot. Click here if you would like to honor Kendric's memory by giving to the Kendric Price Scholarship Fund.

The mastery of materials lives in Denise.

I am a milliner. I make hats. I am also a theatrical craftsperson, which means I make things for costumes. I do fabric dyeing, fabric modification, silk screening, making armor, and things like that. I love teaching at the Eliot because of the curiosity of the students. I always say to people who take a workshop with me, that I'm going to learn more than you learn, and I have 30 years of experience doing this. I am always meeting another person's idea, and then helping with that idea—and I learn a ton in the process. So, I really love teaching those classes, and I miss it. I miss being with people.

My specialty is to try and mind meld with my students, figure out what they're trying to make, and then help them have success making that hat. There are a million and a half hats that you could possibly make, but I want to know what hat you want to make. I help students learn skills along the way that they can use to make more things.

I tell my students that you don't really learn things if you do it perfectly right the first time. All the learning happens in the mistakes. When you make a mistake, you see, “Oh that’s not what I wanted!” That's when you really learn to manipulate materials. Really, what I'm teaching is how to manipulate materials and processes.

I'm sure everyone was in a different place when the schoolhouse closed. Workshops and intensives, we had to cancel them. You know obviously nobody felt safe, and it was absolutely the right thing to do. The Eliot School was kind enough to honor our contracts for those first classes that got canceled. That was really generous.

During COVID when people were making masks, it suddenly became relevant to have sewing skills. Suddenly craft was at the forefront. Sewing, this skill that maybe people thought was old fashioned and outdated and not very useful anymore and just something you did to please yourself—it suddenly became one of the most important things that we could be doing. People started emailing me from all over the country, “What are you doing about masks?” People were dragging their sewing machines out of hiding to make hundreds and thousands of masks. It was really interesting to be involved with a worldwide group of people who were sewing masks, whether you knew them or not.

The heart to give back lives in Jas.

I never thought I'd be teaching woodworking. I was working at a hospital, just got promoted to a lab. Around the same time, I was taking the Basic Box class at the Eliot. Somehow, making the box made me think of the lab, and how I didn't want to be in that cubicle—not with my desire to interact with people. I left that job and started working at the Eliot School as a shop assistant, which gradually grew into teaching. I realized that was my calling.

There I was going back to teach at my old high school, English High. To be honest, graduating high school was not an easy path for me, so going back to teach felt like patching up old scars and giving back. I was able to teach kids from a similar background, who may have had a learning disability or just didn't understand the language. I learned woodworking all over again in Spanish to speak with most of my Latino students. Bouncing back and forth from English to Spanish to communicate with students was rewarding. I had kids from all over South America, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

We created things in the class that brought out their inner artist, their inner woodworker. It felt great to show students that with just the proper techniques, they could believe in themselves and make things. The sky's the limit.

When COVID hit, I thought I was going to be out of a job. You can’t teach woodworking online. Fortunately, Abigail our Director told us to start renovating. While the schoolhouse was closed there was an opportunity to do upgrades. Though I had fears of getting sick, I was relieved that I was able to keep a full-time job and learn a lot of skills in the process.

I had an amazing boss, Andrew Riiska. He’s a woodworker and a person who's been in the trades since he was about 11 years old. I learned so much from him about patience and how maintaining good tools and equipment is crucial to woodworking. “A bad carpenter blames his tools,” Andrew would say.

Fortunately, I was surrounded by other teachers in a similar crisis, all sharing ideas and supporting each other. I learned quickly how to start teaching digital art fabrication online. The community made it easier to adapt to online teaching, to branch out and learn other new skills.

The heart of the woodshop lives in Geoff.

I live nearby in Brookline. I found out about the Eliot School, pretty much when we moved in, and I've been coming here about 12 years. The physical space is such a beautiful space to work in. It's well lit with high ceilings, and it has a ton of hand tools and machine tools. I live in a condo. I do not have studio space at home, so it's really important to find a shop like this shared space for woodworking.

The real draw—the teachers and coaches are extraordinary. Many of them are retired wood workers or real artists who know a phenomenal amount about woodworking and love to share. There are guys in their 70s and 80s that come by and want to share what they know, and they know a lot. I go to the open shop on Saturdays. There are always a ton of different people at different skill levels from North Bennet Street School graduates to rank beginners. There's always such a nice camaraderie, sharing information, just joking around. My time there is really quite special.

When COVID hit, we didn't know how long it would be. Woodworking was very hard to do at home. It was frustrating. When I talked to Executive Director Abigail Norman, she told me about the problems with the airflow, how we needed all these extra plans and filters. We got into a conversation about what it would cost, and I decided to give money to the school to help fund this.

It was Abigail's idea to launch a drive for clean air, a mini fundraiser. She asked me to talk to a gathering of people from the woodworking community about why I was giving money and why the school was important. We thought that some other people would also like to contribute. I was certain they missed it as much as I did.

We raised enough money to put in the whole air exchange, the HEPA filters, and ionizers. I think it's going to exchange the air every ten minutes. For the woodworkers and for everybody, it'll be a safe place to work. Am I looking forward to coming back and seeing my friends again? Yes. The shop will reopen better than it ever was. Hopefully, it won’t lose the community feel, the camaraderie, the expertise—everything that makes it so special.

Click here to give toward our Clean Air fundraiser.

The hearts of future artists live in Teen Bridge

Anita: A valuable lesson I've learned is that it's okay to try, and if you don't get it, you just keep working on it. I have so many areas in art that I feel like I'm lacking, but through Teen Bridge I've been able to learn, especially from the teachers. And even though it doesn't go the way I like—sometimes I hate some of the work I make—I still try to improve and make it better.

Vlad: My Teen Bridge experience was awesome. Honestly, when I first started, I was very anti-social. I didn't know much about art or mediums. But now I feel like I've gained a lot of people skills, communication skills, and art skills.

Grace: I think for me, practicing art has really changed how I look at the world. I don't see just shapes and colors anymore. You really kind of break things down. It gives you a more creative outlook in general. It helps with problem solving. And it just really kind of widens your view overall. So, you're able to remove yourself from the logic piece, and you can just kind of be creative and have fun and loosen up a little bit. That’s been a pretty big change for me.

Isaac: I plan to become an artist, professionally. I hope to make a stable career out of it in my adult life. I have a lot of memories, and they're all great about this program. I think my favorite ones have to be my summer artist-in-residence programs that I participated in. Those were really fun, especially being able to present our work at the end of it, and have it in galleries. That was really cool.

Click here to learn more about our Teen Bridge program.

The heart of the school lives in The Board.

Dana: When COVID hit, it occurred to me what a loss it was going to be for our community, because there was so much emotional stress during COVID. Even before COVID, the School was such an important part of people's lives, giving them a creative outlet to balance their lives and feel fulfilled. The fact that this outlet wouldn't be available to people for a period of time felt like a real loss for the community at large.

Melony: As an individual and as a trustee, I was really concerned about the emotional well-being of the staff. We had really big decisions to make, urgently, and we didn't know how those decisions would land in people's personal lives and work lives. We had to consider what was happening for Abigail, the Executive Director. There were so many pressures on her at that time, and I would say that she weathered that storm so elegantly. I actually don't know how she did it emotionally and psychologically, but she just dialed in. She did have our support, but she was really at the forefront of the big decisions, day in and day out.

Dana: One of our challenges was that we had six new trustees, more than ever before in one period of time. They barely had a chance to assimilate, understand the school, or identify with its mission. We tried to overcome that through remote retreats and a lot of interaction to bring everybody into a common vision of the school. In retrospect, I would say it's important to always have new blood coming to the board, but every board should think about its board tenure and planning of succession in a way that is well paced and allows for constant renewal and continuity in the process.

Melony: I have just been so proud of the school during this time. You know, Abigail and her team are always working furiously behind the scenes to pull off all kinds of remarkable things. But with protections stripped back, with things exposed and laid bare, we witnessed how much they actually do—including that, during this time, we were awarded funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. So we were getting recognition on the national level, regional level, the state level, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Melony: As a board, during this time, we got to practice how to talk more explicitly about the importance of equity. I think a lot of people come to the conversation feeling it's a good thing, but not quite understanding how to enact it and embody it. This is something we are learning by doing. This moment invited us to really understand how critical it is for the school—because of our programming, because of our funding, because of the way the community receives us—how important it is for us to actually name and claim and be proud of thinking about equity and justice. As an individual board member, I'm proud of that. This is a learning process for us, and I feel hopeful about the direction we’re moving in.

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Photos by Todd Dionne