WEST ORANGE, NJ - The Essex County Council of PTAs and the West Orange Council of PTAs honored West Orange students on Dec. 5 in the First Annual Reflections Art Show, with a theme of “Let Your Imagination Fly.”

Attendees filled the WOHS Learning Media Center to see 80 students honored from pre-school through Grade 12. The awards were hosted by Lee Sutton, NJ PTA Reflections Chair, Tim Carter, West Orange Council of PTA President and Kyra Swinney, Essex County PTA President. Of the 80 entries honored, 17 will go on to compete in the state level of the program.

Part of the program included two songs from the Pleasantdale Fifth Grade Chorus, and readings of award-winning literature from students honored in the program: Jeremy Cerruto, from Mount Pleasant Elementary; Chelsea P. Adams, from Saint Cloud Elementary; and Addison Berzolla, from the Edison School. Attendees were also addressed by Superintendent Jeffery Rutzky.

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The PTA Reflections Program is supported by the National PTA, WOCPTA and PTAs across the country. It urges students to submit original works of art in various media. Most of submissions this year in West Orange were in visual arts and literature, but other categories include dance choreography, film production, music composition and photography. Each year features a different theme for entries. This year’s theme was “Let Your Imagination Fly.”

Sutton said that while this is the 47th year of this program, this is the first one for West Orange and Essex County.

“When I became the Reflections Chairperson for New Jersey, I was surprised to find out that Essex County did not participate,” she said. “It became my mission to get the program up and running here in West Orange. I was able to coordinate with the West Orange Council of PTA’s and 10 out of the 11 schools within the district submitted work.”

“These Award of Excellence winners will be invited to participate in the NJPTA Reflections Show to be held April 16th in Princeton,” she added. “If they succeed at State and move to National, they will compete for scholarships, travel, and a year-long exhibit at the Department of Education in Washington, DC.”

Carter said starting this program was a little bit of a surprise for teachers.

“We came in at the beginning of the school year when everything is just gearing up, teachers are preparing their plans, and we said ‘we want to do a new program’,” he said. But he added, “We thank every child, teacher and principal for supporting this program, and the artists and people who have come tonight to see the exhibits.”

A graduate of the West Orange High School and now a professional photographer, West Orange Arts Council’s E’lana Lemon said this program validates what she already knew about arts in her own education.

“I learned about arts from a young age, and that’s why I’m creative now,” she said. A star athlete during her time at WOHS, she added, “You can be creative and still do other things you like—you don’t have to do just one thing. Embrace your creativity: it will help you in the long run.”

Sutton agreed that arts are important in well-rounded students.

“Students who participate in arts programs like Reflections show the greatest relative improvement in academic achievement, especially for those in underserved communities,” said Sutton. “Arts education has the ability to level the playing field because it provides a safe learning environment where students take risks, explore ideas and express their individuality. Students also learn to support their peers in a positive way by breaking down communication barriers—probably because the arts are a universal language.”

West Orange Board of Education President Ron Charles and Board member Laura Lab, agreed the arts are an important feature of student life.

Lab said, “Providing an opportunity to engage in the arts is a great outlet for our kids. We want to have a way that for kids to show off their stuff. Not everyone runs with the ball in sports, but a student can excel in other areas such as band, theater or other arts.”

Charles noted that a current program being developed t the high school is a great example of the arts opportunity in West Orange.

“A new music production club, with Mr. Tyrone Corbett as advisor, has been started at West Orange High School, which focuses on 21st century music and the digital age,” he said. “How music is produced has changed in 2015, and with things like drum machines and Apple computers, we are helping students explore this. We hope to have this as part of the curriculum in 2016.”

It seems the kids are behind this focus on the arts as much as—if not more than their parents. Overheard at the event was one mother who said, “I was on the couch watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and they (the children) said we had to go to see the art awards.”