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Years after COVID-19 disruption, Baltimore School for the Arts students perform, draw famous alums

The Baltimore School for the Arts jazz band.
Zshekinah Collier
The Baltimore School for the Arts jazz band.

Years before Rachel Hilson starred in hit television dramas like NBC’s This is Us, she was a young artist who trained at Baltimore School for the Arts, a nationally recognized public arts high school whose alums include artists like Tupac Shakur, Jada Pinkett Smith and fashion designer Christian Siriano.

Hilson hails from Baltimore City’s Northwood neighborhood which sits just west of Morgan State University. As a child, Hilson trained in dance camps, performed in recitals and even the classic ballet The Nutcracker. But as a teenager moved on to explore acting.

Hilson is the honorary chair for the Baltimore School for the Arts annual fundraiser this year. She graduated from high school in 2013. She’s known for her roles in CBS’s The Good Wife, and streaming company Hulu’s Love, Victor.

“I learned how to balance math homework with memorizing monologues,” Hilson said in an interview with WYPR. “I feel like I was allowed to explore the earliest, most expressive version of myself…and it was really special.”

Actress Rachel Hilson attends the premiere screening of FX's "Fosse/Verdon" at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Monday, April 8, 2019, in New York.
Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Actress Rachel Hilson attends the premiere screening of FX's "Fosse/Verdon" at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Monday, April 8, 2019, in New York.

Expressions is the school's annual gala and student showcase. Two years since the coronavirus pandemic prompted significant disruptions to the often live in-person performances, this is the first time all aspects of the arts celebration and fundraiser are back.

As a public school, roughly 67 percent of Baltimore School for the Arts stems from Baltimore City Public Schools. The remaining 33 percent of the school’s funding is raised by the school’s foundation.

The art school’s work is only possible if the foundation can raise additional money.

“The heart and soul of the school are the students who work so hard,” said Rosiland Cauthen, executive director and principal of the Baltimore School for the Arts. “They deserve to be recognized. They deserve to be supported in this way.”

The money raised goes towards master classes, art supplies, such as paint brushes, instruments, technology, dance shoes, and more.

The annual fundraiser pays for the high school’s after school program, known as TWIGS or To Work in Gaining Skills, which is free for 700 elementary and middle school students across the city each year.

Jamir Lawson, now a saxophonist and junior at the arts high school, once attended the free after-school program. Lawson said it’s his first year performing in the showcase.

“We don't normally get to do big events like this,” Lawson said.

Baltimore School for the Arts senior Lowrider James, left, and Jamir Lawson, junior, is on the right.
Zshekinah Collier
Baltimore School for the Arts senior Lowrider James, left, and Jamir Lawson, junior, is on the right.

Learning to become a talented musician is not just about the music, but rather a plethora of life skills.

“You definitely learn core values early on and how to be respectful, how to be responsible, how to be safe within your community, in the arts is just a way for us all to grow,” he said. “It's an outlet.”

Lawson’s bandmate, Lowrider James, a senior who plays the tuba said he is most excited about playing songs by the popular late 60’s band Earth Wind and Fire.

“I think this year is a very special year. Not only me being a senior, but also the music is incredible,” James said.

In addition to popular covers, the band will play an original piece titled Mana Sword composed by Jake Silverman, a local Grammy Award-winning artist.

The goal is to have guest artists compose pieces for the jazz band, said Ed Hrybyk, an alum and jazz band director.

Hrybyk said that it’s ‘amazing’ that during the showcase students are able to experience a live performance, from showtime to large production. This type of performance sets the stage for students who one day may aspire to perform or even produce high profile events such as the Grammy Awards or the Superbowl.

“You know, they're learning by getting thrown in it,” Hybryk said. “That aspect is really important.”

Television star Hilson said it’s important to her to continue supporting events like the school’s showcase because it enables all students, especially those from various backgrounds, to participate in the arts.

“I think everybody has a unique footprint,” Hilson said. “I think we need everybody in this world. We need everybody’s mark.”

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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