ArtSmart at Lincoln High School

Access to the arts is a requirement for high school students in New Jersey. But at Abraham Lincoln High School in Jersey City, Crissa Dragotti is the sole music instructor for about 950 students. She teaches keyboard and guitar classes, music exploration, and drum line. There are no official choir or band programs. This year, however, ArtSmart has come in and made a difference. 

ArtSmart is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to transform the lives of youth in under-resourced communities across the U.S. through tuition-free music lessons and mentorship by paid professional artists. Fifteen students participate in the ArtSmart program at Lincoln High, receiving weekly private voice lessons and mentorship from mentor Carmen Cancél.

Cancél, who has taught for ArtSmart for three years, said, “It’s incredibly beneficial for the students to learn to collaborate and listen to one another. It’s been fun to watch them take ownership of their vocal parts as they memorize and rehearse together. The camaraderie and encouragement they gain from working together is a huge plus.”

Said Lincoln Principal Chris Gadsden, “my students love it. It’s a great program.”

Overwhelming research and ArtSmart’s data shows that students who have access to arts education, especially when delivered one-to-one or in small groups, have improved mental health, self-confidence, and academic success.

Dragotti has seen ArtSmart’s impact as well. “I have seen students who had low confidence blossom over the last few months. There are students who were failing because of attendance who are now coming to school to participate and applying themselves in class so that their teachers allow them to attend the ArtSmart program.”

The ArtSmart group’s collaboration led to an invitation to represent Lincoln High School at Jersey City Public Schools District-Wide Showcase “Watch Them Bloom.”

“I think it’s a wonderful way to show off to the students’ peers, parents, and community. They have worked hard and come so far in just a few months,” said Dragotti.

The students, conducted by Cancél, performed the song “True Colors,” which was popularized by Cyndi Lauper.

As for the future, Cancél is already making plans. “It is my hope that we have enough students audition for the ArtSmart program at Lincoln High next year, so we can begin a vocal theatre program, where they’ll have this kind of collaborative interaction every week.”

Emily was born and raised in New Jersey, and graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in architecture. She has a background in design, public health, radio, and comedy.