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Opening Doors That Change Lives

Opening Doors That Change Lives

One day in 2005, a group of boys from Providence’s Hope High School found their way to the basement at 20 Washington Place.

One day in 2005, a group of boys from Providence’s Hope High School found their way to the basement at 20 Washington Place. Their struggling school had been placed under state control because of its high dropout rates, and the boys, who craved an artistic outlet, had heard something about an after-school program at RISD.

“I have such a vivid memory of those sophomore students kind of wandering in on their own and saying, ‘Hey, can we join?’” says ProfessorPaul Sproll, head of RISD’s Department ofTeaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD). He typically mentors graduate student teachers, but soon began volunteering in the basement himself after word of the program reached Feinstein High, another low-performing public school. “That’s when we knew we had something – something that could be really meaningful.”

Five years and more than 500 students later, that something is known asProject Open Door (POD) – a pioneering program that attracts urban teens with a passion for art and literally envelops them with RISD resources and intensive mentoring throughout their high school years.

The college recently received renewed support for POD from the Surdna Foundation, which is providing a $160,000, two-year grant to build on its two previous three-year grants for the initiative. The ongoing commitment from Surdna recognizes POD’s success in addressing the foundation’s Thriving Cultures goals to provide opportunities for the artistic advancement of teens. Surdna is particularly interested in stimulating fresh thinking and new approaches to address the isolation and lack of artistic opportunities for young people from disadvantaged communities, and long term, to provide opportunities for teens from diverse cultures to contribute to the evolution of new art forms and the artistic fabric of the U.S. In addition to support from Surdna, POD has received additional funding from the Amgen Foundation, Amica Companies Foundation, Hasbro Children’s Foundation and The Rhode Island Foundation.

Proof of Concept

Project Open Door’s sequential, highly structured curriculum introduces students to the fundamentals of art and design in a dedicated studio space where TLAD students, RISD faculty and visiting artists from around the world help teach. Thanks to a strong focus on developing competitive portfolios and tireless work by staff members to secure financial support, the program has opened doors to college for 98 percent of its diverse, low-income students, 89 percent of whom are either still in college or have graduated.

Participants have been admitted everywhere from Yale, Cornell and West Point to Pratt, Parsons and RISD. In fact, in 2010, 12 of 13 POD students who applied to RISD were accepted, with slightly better admissions scores than the total pool of freshman applicants. One POD alum,Sang Dinh11 AP, just graduated from RISD and last year was chosen to show his designs at theELLE + RISD Fashion Next runway show in New York City.

Almost without exception, the stories of POD students are ones of struggle and perseverance. Many are first-generation Americans from immigrant families, the first in their families to go to college, or both. For the majority of kids, the pressure to get a job immediately after high school is enormous. And the peer pressure to spend Saturdays and weekday afternoons doing something besides studying color theory in a basement can be just as intense.

“There’s an incredible tenacity here, an incredible desire on the part of these kids to make things,” saysMara O’Day, POD’s longtime studio coordinator until just recently. “They’re also incredibly caring and the sense of community – both intellectually and emotionally – is really strong. The older kids are aware of the younger kids looking up to them. Even if they’re struggling, they’re aware of the kind of message it might send if they give up.”

Those who find their way to the basement studio discover there’s much more waiting for them than charcoal and sketchbooks. They find dedicated mentors in TLAD students, post-graduate fellows and faculty, many of whom volunteer their time.

Now in its eighth year, Project Open Door has become increasingly more of a college-wide effort. “Part of what’s so special is the way all the various arms of RISD are connecting to wrap resources around these kids,” says Sproll. “We’re making a commitment to these students over time – to help them get to college, succeed in college and do what all artists do: find their creative voice in art making. That’s where the idea of opening doors becomes so powerful.”

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Still Opening Doors for Teens

Proud Project Open Door participants share work, stories and plans for the future at the end-of-year exhibition.