With a rich foundation in music since its inception in 2010, a decision was made to add a wider scope of Performing Arts to Challenge Charter Schools at the start of the 2017-18 school year. Founder and CEO, Rev. Dr. Les Mullings always had a vision for adding high quality arts training to the many enrichment activities available to the scholars of Challenge Prep and Challenge Middle.
To help facilitate that vision, he brought in Jamaican reggae singer, Nadine Sutherland as the Performing Arts Director in August of 2017. The premiere performance for the program, Winter Wonderland, was held in December of last year and featured students from 3rd to 8th grade.
As she began her after school and weekend training of scholars, Ms. Sutherland simultaneously started looking to the community and greater city of New York for strategic partnerships. Sutherland jokingly calls herself a dancer who became a singer, and she quickly recognized that the arts scholars she was coming into contact with would need expert training to be able to get into Performing Arts High Schools.
She visited Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and connected with Cathryn Williams who is responsible for the Ailey Arts in Education and Community Program. Ms. Williams encouraged Challenge Charter Schools to look at their residency program. Now every student in Kindergarten through 8th Grade receive on-site professional dance training every week including Tap, Ballet, West African, and Hip Hop.
Dr. Mullings hopes to continue the training for a minimum of five years saying, “Alvin Ailey is one of the most sought after and sophisticated professional dance theaters in our country, so it was natural for us to pursue a partnership for our scholars. We always seek to develop the whole person in our students, teaching them to thrive and grow to be great citizens. We provide educational opportunities where our scholars shine in and out of the classroom.
“Unfortunately, Far Rockaway has been underserved for many years. In the past, we have been the ‘end of the line,’ an afterthought, but that is thankfully changing. This special partnership with Alvin Ailey Arts in Education helps to give our children the same opportunities that students experience elsewhere,” Mullings concluded.
In late February, Mullings was recognized for his ongoing community work and personal commitment to improving education when he was awarded the Queens Borough Spirit Award from the African American Heritage Committee and President Melinda Katz. During his keynote address at the event, he reminded the attendees that education is not a privilege but rather an important right for every child in America.
Eight years ago, it was the tireless vision of Dr. Mullings to develop and create the school to serve the needs of the Far Rockaway community that resulted in the opening of Challenge Preparatory Charter School. This academic year represents the realization of the full charter as 8th Grade was added for the first time in the school's history.
“We are always looking to improve the learning experience of our scholars, and we take seriously the need for each student to ultimately get a college education. To that end, we have new offerings at our Middle School including Honors courses for 8th Graders and an expanded Athletics program, in addition to Performing Arts. We encourage families with rising Kindergartners to rising 8th Graders who want high academic standards and robust enrichment activities through our electives and after school activities to apply.”
The school is in high demand with over 1800 applications for the upcoming 2018-19 school year. With most of the applications from parents seeking spots for Kindergarten, Challenge Charter Schools is expanding. There are plans to add three additional Kindergarten classes by 2019 with 9th grade to follow for the 2020-21 school year pending authorizer approval.
Challenge Charter students are already benefiting from the expanded programs and connections made through the addition of Performing Arts. Dancer Malachi Kingston received a full scholarship with the Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center after Sutherland landed him an audition with the founder. For four years, Dwana Smallwood served as part of the staff for Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls before returning to New York to build her thriving arts program.
Following high school application season, several of the rising 9th graders have been accepted at the reputable Townsend Harris High School. In addition, the growing sports program now includes Swim classes in conjunction with the Rockaway YMCA.
“The future is very bright for our school. As we continue to enrich the lives and learning of our existing scholars, we stay committed to the remaining need in the community for better education for all children in Far Rockaway. I am so proud to lead our committed group of teachers and staff in this endeavor, ” said Mullings.
The application deadline for the 2018-19 school year is March 29th. Challenge Charter School hosts its Lottery Night on April 19th. Dance recitals to showcase what the students of Challenge Charter have learned from the Alvin Ailey program will take place in May.