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Behailu Academy: Giving Students Opportunities Through the Arts

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By Eren Simpson

Helping kids find their voices through the arts is what Behailu Academy is all about. But to the students, it’s much more.

“The meaning of behailu is ‘strength overcomes obstacles,’ but our kids say behailu means family,” said Lori Krzeszewski, executive director.

Charlottean Deedee Mills founded the non-profit Behailu Academy (named after her Ethiopian adopted son, whose given name was Behailu) in 2011 to provide a safe and creative after school environment that uses the arts and community service to empower youths in urban schools.

“Our goal is to provide teens with the education, experience and opportunities they need to create the lives they want for themselves,” said Krzeszewski, who has been leading the academy since 2013.

The academy is going into its sixth year, and is now working with three main schools -– Garinger High School, Cochrane Collegiate Academy and Eastway Middle – though it accepts students from any school in Charlotte.

The academy runs its programming five days a week, and the students are expected to show up for at least four in order to remain in the program.

“It’s all voluntary, and we work really hard to talk with the young people and their families about the commitment they’re making and the expectations of what it means to be here,” Krzeszewski said. “What we provide is transportation and programs at no cost, and the expectation of them is they attend and they engage. And then they work to the best of their ability to grow themselves as people.”

Monday through Thursday, students participate in art classes, which range from improv to spoken-word poetry, painting, digital design, photography, band, mixed media and more. The classes are designed each fall, spring, winter and summer session after receiving input from the students on what they want to do.

Once their classes are finished, they get homework help and tutoring – each child’s grades and progress are monitored weekly.

“We hold them accountable for their progress,” Krzeszewski said. “It’s not about everyone getting on honor roll, but it’s about doing the best they can and making sure you’re working on the things you can control and create the best situation for yourself.”

Krzeszewski said the idea is to help the kids see the healthy habits they’re developing will translate out of high school, particularly for students who are not interested in college.

The academy has 55 students on its roster, and about 30 percent of them have been with the program for three years or more. Krzeszewski said 97 percent of the academy’s graduates have graduated from high school and 90 percent of those are either employed or in post-secondary institutions.

Krzeszewski said the academy is not only a place for students to express themselves creatively, but also allows them to create open dialogue through a program called the Meals and Minds Movement, which is an opportunity for the students to get together on Wednesday evenings, share a meal and discuss with board members, community members, volunteers and public officials things that are going on in the community.

Behailu Academy is an arts academy, but it ends up being so much more for the students involved.

“What I try to help people understand is for us we have 50 percent who come here specifically for the arts, but 50 percent come here because they desire to belong to something; they want to be a part of the community,” Krzeszewski said. “A lot of young people don’t think they like the arts, but through engaging them, it opens up this talent they didn’t know they had -– it’s a vehicle for personal transformation. They can begin to get comfortable in their own skin and take healthy risks, build confidence.”

To learn more about Behailu Academy, visit www.behailu.org.