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'There may be some Picassos ... here'

A $1.2-million effort to help keep kids off the streets and out of trouble may serve as an outlet for budding young artists.

By JOE HUMPHREY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


UNIVERSITY NORTH -- They danced to the beat of water bottles and five-gallon buckets, sounds reminiscent of the Broadway show Stomp. They smiled and laughed and, perhaps most important, learned.

The children at the University Area Community Development Center danced as part of PRODIGY, a $1.2-million effort to introduce visual and performing arts to young people in the university area.

Organizers hope it's money well spent, dollars designed to help keep kids off the street and out of trouble in Hillsborough County's highest juvenile crime area. Children who live in ZIP codes 33612 and 33613 are eligible for the program. PRODIGY will also serve as a means of rehabilitation for youths from the area who commit minor crimes.

But more than a diversionary tactic, PRODIGY is meant to give budding artists an outlet for their expression.

"There may be some Picassos on the street here, and there may be Picassos in the juvenile justice program. We want them to know they have choices," said Sara Romeo, executive director of Artists Unlimited, a local agency that will operate PRODIGY's visual arts program.

Private support is driving PRODIGY, which received $600,000 from donations. The rest is tax money, secured by two Republican lawmakers: Rep. Victor Crist and Sen. John Grant. Within three years, Crist said the program should no longer need state money.

PRODIGY is housed in the new University Area Community Center at 14013 N 22nd St. In a presentation at the center this week, Crist reported statistics on how arts training leads to higher test scores and improved race relations.

SAT math scores reveal that, on average, students involved in theater score 40 points higher than those with no math training.

The gap is even wider on the verbal portion of the test, 543 for theater students compared to 477 for non-artists.

So far, only a few dozen students are involved in the summer theater and dance programs.

Eventually, 1,000 to 2,000 children will study in PRODIGY. Crist, who studied as a concert pianist since he was 5 and also learned dance and theater, said he's dreamed of a program such as PRODIGY for 20 years.

"There may be a prodigy out there that doesn't know (he or she) has the talent in order to perform," he said.

-- Contact Joe Humphrey at 226-3403 or humphrey@sptimes.com.

Programs offered through PRODIGY

PRODIGY uses counseling, visual and performing arts to improve the attitudes, learning skills and community involvement of more than 1,000 young people in and around the University of South Florida area.

Artists Unlimited will offer instruction in: creative and visual arts, clay building, wheel-throwing, black and white photography and drawing.

Hillsborough Community College will offer performing arts instruction in: dance, chorus, art for the theater, music and acting.

Instruction takes place at the University Area Community Development Center, 14013 N 22nd St. For more information, call (813) 558-5212.

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