Arts & Entertainment

Woodlawn Arts Academy: Where Artists Go to Grow and Create

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While schools are cutting back their arts programs, this Sterling-based academy is revving up. Discover how this unique location fosters artists of every age, and why this creative outlet is so important for families.

Left: A young artist shows off her colorful drawings. Right: Students in the Whack Attack class use tuned tubes to perform a song for parents.

It’s about 4 p.m., and the hallways are surprisingly quiet, although the classrooms are full of active children. You can hear their muffled giggles and shouts as they warm up for dance or wait for instruction in painting. Faintly, you can hear clarinets humming and children rehearsing.

While arts programs in our public schools are slowly being scaled back, classes at Woodlawn Arts Academy, 3807 Woodlawn Road, Sterling, Ill., are exploding, and for good reason.

Inside this former elementary school building, there exists a unique and creative learning environment, a vibrant community in which both kids and adults explore their imaginations.

“Not only does it help to broaden their horizons, it helps them academically, and for an individual to have that creative outlet is important,” says Christy Zepezauer, executive director. “Not everybody is going to be the athlete, not everybody is going to be at the top of their class, but if this is their place, they can say, ‘I have a home here, this is where I excel,’ and we live up to our motto of teaching everyone. How is a child or even an adult going to find the arts, unless they’re given the opportunity to try them?”

Woodlawn students come from Whiteside, Carroll, Ogle and Lee counties; classes support public school, homeschooled and parochial school students, while outreach programs cover underserved schools like Nelson Elementary, in Nelson, Ill. Thanks to a scholarship program, nearly 1,000 low-income kids have received tuition assistance.

Surveys suggest that exposure to the arts is more than fun – it’s essential for growing well-rounded, higher-achieving students. According to a survey by nonprofit Americans for the Arts, kids exposed to the arts are likely to achieve more academically, attend class more often, read for pleasure and perform community service. A study by the Arts Education Partnership links art education with improved test scores, higher cognitive skills and stronger social skills.

“I can show you the statistics,” says Zepezauer. “They show that individuals who study the arts excel academically. There’s a steady increase in job positions pertaining to the arts. The arts add to the overall economic growth of communities, and that’s something that the Sauk Valley area has been really good at embracing.”

While Woodlawn is no replacement for public schools in Sterling, Rock Falls, or Dixon, it complements the area’s already-vibrant community, says Zepezauer, who’s led the nonprofit since 2008. Also a dance instructor, she previously directed arts programming for the Elk Grove (Ill.) Park District.

For students in elementary, middle and high school, Woodlawn offers a rich array of classes in dance, theater, cooking, music, painting and more. Every year it hosts student musicals, dance and music recitals, summer art camps, a show choir and a competitive dance team. The academy hosts an instrumental band for parochial and home-schooled youths, and a rock band.

“Many of our music students get to a certain point and want to perform more, so they participate in Rhythm-Quest Rocks and our instructor helps them to form their own bands,” says Zepezauer. “So, when they’re ready, we send them out into the community and they get to perform.”

Adults make up just 10 percent of the student body. They enjoy writing, photography and pottery classes; music lessons; yoga and tai chi; and fun social events such as “Date Night,” which combines art-inspired childcare and fun for couples.
Four times a year, Woodlawn displays the works of local artists in its well-lit gallery space.

Sterling resident Alice Reter and her family find a sanctuary inside this artistic community. Her three children – ages 9, 12 and 14 – don’t have art or theater classes at their small Christian school.

At Woodlawn, the children thrive in music, theater and visual arts classes. Maya, age 12, shares with her mom the things she learned in cooking class as they cook dinner together. Ellen, 14, landed a coveted spot in a northwest Illinois regional band. Walter, 9, is keeping up with his sisters, playing trumpet since the second grade. Reter has taken part in yoga and drawing classes.

“It was really fun to learn perspective and how to draw something,” she says. “I learned about lines and how you had to connect them to create perspective. I didn’t know you had to do that!”

Originally from the Chicago area, Reter was dismayed by the lack of arts education opportunities she found after her family moved to Sterling in 2001. That all changed when Woodlawn offered its first programs in 2005, with just 75 students, the Reter kids among them.

The brainchild of late Sterling High School choir teacher J. Mark Beaty, Woodlawn began with the support of Sterling philanthropist Pete Dillon, the Sterling-Rock Falls Family YMCA and a group of volunteers. The center was designed to build on the local arts. Dillon’s foundation helped to purchase the abandoned elementary school and transform it into a vibrant art space. Stripping the building to its shell, Woodlawn founders added soundproof music rooms, a sound studio, drawing and pottery classrooms, professional dance studios and more. The gym became a theater. The facility opened in 2006.

“A lot of work went into researching and visiting other art galleries and institutions,” says Zepezauer. “Organizers asked focus groups: ‘In an ideal world, what would you like to see in this Arts Academy? What would be ideal lighting, so there’s not a lot of glare?’ They really did their homework.”

Since 2011, Woodlawn has been financially supported by class fees and private donors. Last year, it hosted some 2,400 students in-house and reached hundreds more through outreach programs to small schools that can’t afford arts classes. Woodlawn adds new classes every year, led by nearly 60 part-time staff members who have decades of experience.

Inside a theater dedicated to Beaty, a teacher assembles her cast.

“Now, remember on Monday, I showed you how to make a character,” the teacher says. “Show me your character.”

The kids jump into position, making big, silly poses and scrunched-up, silly faces. The teacher turns to her lead villain, a little girl with big glasses and bright red hair.

“Do you have your lines memorized?”

The girl nods her head.

“High five,” says the teacher.

These students are a lucky bunch. Just 12 percent of elementary schools and less than half of secondary schools have drama or theater programs, according to statistics from the federal Department of Education. As a feeder program for local schools, Woodlawn is training students for their eventual debut on the stage at Sterling High School, Dixon High School or Sauk Valley Community College. Every year, Woodlawn stages three large musicals for its elementary and middle school-aged youth.

Reter’s children have spent years on this stage, gaining confidence and honing skills in music, drama and a show choir named “Triple Threat.” Reter often watches her children from the parents’ lounge, which has a TV with video feed from inside the classrooms. She not only sees growth in her own kids, but also in others.

“You see reserved kids shine and grow confidence when they’re here,” says Reter. “At the end of the session, the kids come out and go, ‘Look what I did, Mom!’ It makes me feel proud, and I don’t even know who these kids are.”

Often, entire families grow at Woodlawn.

“It’s not just the daughter taking a dance class, or the son taking an art class,” says Zepezauer. “It’s families experiencing the arts together, that sense of community that’s here. I love watching the growth, the improvement and involvement from year to year.”

Becky Ryerson, program director, lives for that “aha” moment. A dance instructor at Woodlawn, she lights up just thinking about the proud students. A dancer since age four, she’s slightly envious of these students.

“We talk about that a lot in here, and say, ‘If only they’d have had this when I was little,’” she says, laughing. “I got lucky because I got into a dance studio. Growing up, there weren’t a lot of opportunities that weren’t sports, so I went with dance, and I kept going. There just wasn’t that opportunity to do an art class.”

Molly Cunningham, a teacher and facilities manager, often feels the same way. Some people are naturally talented, she says, but how will they recognize their own talent unless they explore?

“You can do the YMCA or the park district and get your soccer teams or swim teams or your basketball teams if your school doesn’t offer it,” she says. “But where can you go to take a painting class, or ceramics, or dance, and take a piano lesson? To have it all centralized in one location, that’s a very nice thing.”

Near Woodlawn’s front door, there’s a sign painted on the wall that reads, “Where the Arts Are For Everyone.” It’s a constant reminder for Zepezauer, whose students range in age from six months to 92 years. The possibilities are as unlimited as the imagination.

“It doesn’t matter your background – it doesn’t matter,” she says. “If you have the drive, the creativity and the desire to learn, then we really want you to visit the Academy and take advantage of the artistic opportunities we have to offer.”

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