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After-School Arts 'Light a Fire' in Students, Says First Lady

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A Shakespeare company for Chicago high school students, a professional level ballet school for children and teenagers in Memphis and a job-skills-training center focused on creative arts for 'tweens in a low-income, high-crime suburb of Denver, were among the 12 out-of-school art programs honored at the White House Monday, by  first lady Michelle Obama. 

"Every day, you are lifting up young people across this country, inspiring them to dream bigger and bigger for themselves," said the first lady, praising the teachers, artists, and mentors gathered for the 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. You can click here to watch a video of the ceremony.

"You teach kids more than just skills in the arts and the humanities, but you light a fire in them," said Mrs. Obama.  "You help them grow emotionally and socially.  You give kids a spring in their step when they get out of bed each morning.  You give them something to look forward to after school each day."

That's what happened to high school sophomore Jenny Gonzalez when she joined the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and was cast in a production of Othello last year. "I always thought of Shakespeare as boring, [with] too many big and hard words," Gonzales recalled at the White House ceremony. "But now, every time I see a weird word, I grab the lexicon and look for meaning because I feel like I'm cracking the code."

The event included a performance by one of those groups; the Clarksdale, Mississippi-based Delta Blues Museum Arts and Education Program band, with students from 8 to 15 years old, wowed the audience with the blues standard "Sweet Home Chicago." 

"What these programs do is give these kids, in the most vulnerable times of their lives, a forum in which to express themselves, in which to make sense of the world around them through poetry, through writing, through dance, through theater," said Rachel Goslins, the executive director of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in an online video.

More than 350 community-based, after-school and summer arts and humanities programs applied. Each winner receives $10,000 and a year of expert support to strengthen their programs.

The National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards is a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  It was established to expand access to out-of-school arts and humanities opportunities, especially for students in under-resourced schools, by showcasing outstanding programs.

Participating in the arts improves students' opportunities for success in all areas of life, said the first lady, who urged students not to neglect their education while pursuing their passion for the arts.

"Your education is critical," she said, directing her comments to the students at the White House ceremony. "That's why I'm standing here, that's why most of the people in the room are here. Don't play around with it. It's the best investment that you'll make."

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