Sumner finds ‘Pathway’ to success through innovate arts program


Historic Sumner High School came close to its final curtain.

It was among SLPS schools that faced possible closure until a determined Alumni Association, community leaders, SLPS staff, and elected officials fought to keep its doors open.

With the help of partnerships from Opera Theater St. Louis, The Muny, the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum, and more, Sumner now has a thriving arts program.

Jermaine Smith, Director of Arts and Special Programs is taking students to new heights in the second year of the arts program. Through fashion design, drama, photography, choir, visual arts, dance, and living arts/museum studies. 

The Arts Pathway program was added to the school’s curriculum to boost enrollment and encourage students and families to stay at Sumner High School. Employees of their community partners volunteer in their specific discipline and mentor the students.

The students’ first production, in fall of 2021, was a stage play titled ‘Worth Fighting For.’ Smith describes the play as “art imitating life.”

The youth-led production speaks on a historical school that is at risk of closing down. Smith highlights their most recent showcase last month was a success and their projects are only going to get better. 

“The arts program houses close to 100 students. My goal is to change the idea of what’s going on at Sumner High School; Filtrate out to the city how vibrant we are,” said Smith. 

Smith said he has noticed a change in his students. They have more self-confidence and pride in their school and look forward to their arrival each day. 

Stephon Riggins, a senior, helped orchestrate the original songs for the play ‘Worth Fighting For.’ Since his freshman year, Riggins wanted to help change the dynamic of his school.

“Sumner is not this school filled with ghetto kids. We are talented and yes, we are worth fighting for,” he said

Sumner’s fashion design classroom has 10 sewing machines and is filled with swatches of fabric of all textures. There are hand-crafted design cutouts and racks and racks of clothes.

Smith’s goal is to have class certified so students can receive college credits. The fashion design pathway held its first fashion show last month, and students also had the opportunity to participate in Lindenwood University’s fashion show. The group also traveled to Kansas City during its Fashion Week. 

Sylvester Dickson, who has been with SLPS for 25 years, he has been a coach at Sumner for 15, said he noticed how mature the kids have become over the past two years.

“This arts program has exposed these kids to some things they might never get a chance to experience until they get grown. I can tell it’s making a difference,” he said.

Last year, a senior couldn’t afford to buy a dress for prom, so a pair of students in the fashion department tailored an evening gown that had been donated to the classroom for her.

Nichols Williams, a sophomore, said, “Many of the teachers and volunteers that help, I look up to them like a father figure. They inspire me to get involved in the arts.”

Egypt Hills, a sophomore, has been a part of the arts program since its inception Over the past two years, she studied dancing and added jazz and ballet to her list of dance skills.

“I enjoy being a part of the pathways,” said Hill.

Smith smiles from ear to ear when he speaks about the changes he has seen at Sumner, the growth in his students, and the possibilities they have now been exposed to. 

“I’m changing the pipeline to prison through performing on stage and off stage,” said Smith. 

Ashley Winters is a Report for America reporter for the St. Louis American.

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