Berrie Center nurtures arts partnership with P.S. 28

When Berrie Center Director Lisa Campbell joined Ramapo in 2019, one of her highest priorities was to expand the Berrie Center’s outreach into the surrounding communities, especially those it wasn’t already directly working with.

“We know that public funding of the arts in the schools has been cut radically, and so, as a state institution, I was looking for a partner or partners that we could help contribute to that continued learning and growth,” Campbell said in an interview with The Ramapo News.

In the years since, Campbell has successfully fostered a partnership with Paterson Public School No. 28 (P.S. 28), a pre-K through eighth-grade school that houses the Paterson Academy for the Gifted and Talented as well as a self-contained Special Needs program. It has a 93.3% minority student population and is a Title I school, with 62% of families falling below the federal poverty guidelines for the Free Lunch Program.

When Campbell began talks with the administration, they were interested in using the arts as an educational tool for the students. While they do have a full-time art and music teacher, Campbell said that the school does not have the financial means either from parents, a parent-teacher organization or the school district to fund outside experience with the arts on their own.

“[The principal at P.S. 28] believed strongly in teaching diversity and particularly ethnicities that would be different than the children enrolled there, to give them sort of a global experience,” Campbell said.

So, Campbell took to writing grant proposals to find funding to make this partnership happen, and she hasn’t stopped since. Since 2020, the Berrie Center has been able to bring a variety of programs to the auditorium at P.S. 28 — about four per year — all funded with grants and some private donor money. Campbell said she is always thinking of how to represent a “diversity of art form” in the programs, whether it be music, theater, dance or visual art, but even more importantly, she wants to bring artists of color to the school.

“I want [the students] to see artists who, for lack of a better way of saying it, look like them… and to recognize that this is a career choice, that they are educated and trained to do what they do,” she said.

Through this partnership, the students have gotten to see performances by musician Rodney Marsalis and storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston, as well as learn about Chinese ribbon dance, flamenco and origami to name a few. While most have been assembly programs, some have also included workshops for select classes.

Within the last month, the Berrie Center brought Broadway actress and author Ali Stroker, who is the first actor who uses a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage, to read her children’s books to students, spreading a message about overcoming adversity. For the first time, classes from P.S. 28 traveled to Ramapo’s campus to join other elementary students from North Jersey schools for Sundog Theatre’s “Ellis Island: Gateway to a Dream.”

Ramapo has had a connection with P.S. 28 through the teacher education program since 1990, and Dr. Ellen Kaiden, professor of reading and education, was a pivotal part of bringing the Berrie Center and the school together. The “Ellis Island” show, which was originally supposed to occur in the spring of 2020, was the spark for the partnership.

“We were trying to figure out how to get the students from Paterson to be able to see some of the offerings that the Berrie Center has,” Kaiden said in an interview. “Lisa was new at the time… This was in her heart, too, working with urban districts and promoting the arts for the children where they wouldn’t get any of these experiences.”

While Campbell mentioned that the partnership’s future is at the mercy of grant money, she hopes to nurture this partnership and always welcomes more support. She hopes to continue adding partnerships with other organizations, too. At the start of this school year, the Berrie Center began working with a high school, Passaic Preparatory Academy, and has brought them to attend some of this season’s shows.

“It’s some of the best days I have at my job. There is nothing better than watching that excitement and enthusiasm and connection for children,” she said. “The fire in my belly every day that I come to work is sustaining the arts. That’s what I care about.”


Featured photo submitted by Karley Berrios