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City Hearts: Reaching Inner City Youth through the Arts

by Susan Bonthron
Senior Writer, Community Works Journal

city hearts"City Hearts: Kids Say Yes to the Arts” is an Arts enrichment program in the Los Angeles County area that was founded by Sherry and Bob Jason in 1984 and began offering classes in 1985. City Hearts hires teachers from Los Angeles’ Arts community to teach dance, acting, circus arts, musical theatre, Shakespeare, singing, crafts, and photography free to the community's most impoverished children. The list of arts and artists continues to grow, connecting thousands of underprivileged students with professionals to inspire learning and integrate disaffected youth back into the community through the Arts. The following is a recent interview with founder Sherry Jason.

When I asked Sherry Jason how she got involved in bringing the visual and performing arts to inner city youth in Los Angeles, she told me a story. After graduating from law school, she became a public defender.

city hearts“One of the first things we were asked to do as public defenders was to take a tour of Central Juvenile Hall—one of the oldest and most overcrowded such facilities in the world—so that we could see where our juvenile clients were going to be housed. I was following the group around, seeing boys lifting weights and playing basketball, when I heard the faint sound of classical music being played somewhere. As a long time student and teacher of ballet, I was naturally attracted to the sound of classical music, so I strayed off from the group in search of its source. I found a small storeroom, where a young boy was getting his first piano lesson.”

“”What would have been this young man’s case history if

he had met the piano before he met gangs and guns?

The boy, she went on to explain, would listen to what the teacher played and then repeat it fluently after hearing it only once. He was a true prodigy—playing Mozart as if he were born for it.  “I learned that this young genius was thirteen years old and awaiting placement in the California Youth Authority prison for committing a murder. What would have been this young man’s case history if he had met the piano before he met gangs and guns? How would his life have been different, not to mention the lives of his victim and both their families?”

Prevention is the Key
Sherry’s frustration increased every day as she saw talented kids who were failing in school, had no sense of themselves, no family support, and yet who would be drawing pictures while they awaited trial for serious crimes. She could not forget their victims, either—“people who would forever have horrible memories, life-changing sadness and fear. The best thing our system can do is prevention—that’s the key here. We’re all trying to prevent the things that make trouble for people.”

Yet the more involved in prevention she got, the more lopsided the system appeared. “All the resources are at the bottom of the pyramid, in law enforcement and prison systems. In California, prison guards make more money than teachers. The bottom end of the system is so invested in punishment, there is no incentive to prevent crime. What children see daily in the most impoverished communities—gang violence, family members and neighbors being shot on a weekly basis, inadequate parenting, alcohol and drug abuse, daily traumas—it’s unbearable. And in the classroom, these kids are often faced with run-of-the-mill teaching, overcrowding, schools in disrepair, teachers being laid off as school districts try to make do on shrinking budgets.”


It is Sherry’s belief—and the core of the mission of City Hearts—that the Arts are a significant way to help students learn and excel in school, and eventually give back to the community. From a very young age she has believed that lack of money or resources should not stand in the way of learning in the Arts.

city heartsThe Arts Should Be for Everyone 
“I began teaching ballet at the age of eleven in my garage, charging 50 cents a class. Even then there was a family—the father was a schoolteacher, and the mother worked in Bob’s Big Boy as a car hop. They had three kids, and ballet lessons for their two girls would have cost their lunch money. Right then and there I decided that art should be provided to every child, regardless of their ability to pay. I waived their fee.”

Sherry continued to teach ballet even while attending UCLA and law school.  She worked for four and half years as a Public Defender while continuing to teach. In 1981, she retired from full-time law practice with the Public Defender’s Office to found her own ballet school—the Ballet for Topanga School and Performing Company. Meanwhile she continued working as a private contractor appointed by judges to do the same kind of work that she had done in the Public Defender’s Office.

“I’d come home and take off the high heels and stockings, and put on ballet slippers. I was teaching kids from affluent families whose parents were supportive, looking for creative outlets for their children. I was struck by the huge contrast between those kids and the ones I saw at work. That’s when I asked myself, “What if there was something that connected these juvenile offenders to the community, to a sense of themselves? The Arts were the answer. The Arts are what distinguish us and make us uniquely human. They’re not just the icing on the cake, they are the cake.”

City Hearts is Founded
In 1983, Sherry and her husband Bob, whom she’d met in the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office, found warehouse space in the old Challenge Creamery building, built in 1926. “Our space was where the milk was loaded onto the trucks. So with the change in elevation of the loading dock and concrete pillars every 23 feet, we created a proscenium theater and dance studio—five thousand square feet of oak floors and 50 feet of mirrors. We borrowed money from friends and family, took out loans, and my husband used all his retirement money to provide the raised oak floor on which the students dance.” In 1984, the couple founded City Hearts, and the first classes were held in January, 1985. Some of those first City Hearts children are now teachers themselves in the Los Angeles area.

city hearts“You’re learning it because something is enriching

you and you want to go to the next level.”

When I asked her to expand on the connection between Arts and learning, Sherry explained, “The Arts teach discipline without kids realizing it. You’re learning it because something is enriching you and you want to go to the next level. You’re putting the time in.” She described a Circus Arts program they run. “On the first day, kids learn to spin a plastic plate on a stick. You can learn it in one or two lessons. That’s the hook, something fun that they can be successful at right away. That gives them the confidence to move on to other skills, like juggling…. In our Shakespeare program, it takes time, the learning is cumulative—and they see what they have learned by the performance. By the end of it, they’re understanding English literature and history.”

Making Connections 
Sherry can find ways to incorporate math and physics and geometry in all her teaching; making connections is essential to her work. “The Arts are not stand alone, they are interconnected. When I ask my ballet students to cross the room diagonally, they learn that the diagonal is the longest distance between the two corners. They learn to count the beat. That’s math.” Sherry was asked to help create standards for visual and performing arts, and this led her to do research about the subject of the Arts and learning. “I discovered research had been done on how working with a musical keyboard actually builds brain matter, and the benefits of teaching music to preschoolers to help build neural connections in the brain. We’re hoping to create a keyboard project soon,” she added.   [See sidebar with resources on the subject of the arts and brain development.]

city heartsIn 1992, the Jasons met with juvenile justice officials to launch “Sentenced to the Stage”, a program where youthful offenders on probation for nonviolent offences could be “sentenced” to City Hearts for their community service. A year later, attempting to reach more violent offenders as well, City Hearts began a program to serve incarcerated youth Los Angeles County. “These kids were in a locked camp,” explained Sherry. “They’d been convicted of crimes like armed robbery. A group of youth wrote a play called “Slipping Into Darkness.” During the play, actors sometimes put their arms around each other, and the script called for some actors to weep. When the play started, there were sniggering and cat-calls from the audience. By the end of the play you could hear a pin drop. The only audible sound was sniffing. The actors, who were from rival gangs, said ‘We’re brothers now.’ Writing and acting in that play became more important to them than their gang membership.

“We tried to create an after-camp program to continue with the kids, but once they return to their home neighborhoods, the pressure is back on. Only one student showed up. We heard that another performer had been killed. It was heartbreaking.”

Sherry admits, “For the most part it’s hard to track our kids because they are so transient.” On a happier note, she talked about some of City Hearts triumphant successes. “I got two of my juvenile clients to be extras on Jane Seymour’s “Medicine Woman” show. (Actress Jane Seymour has been the City Hearts National Honorary Chairperson since 1988).  One of our graduates (a former gang member) from that program is now 32 and a successful businessman in the high tech arena. He is now on our board of directors as well.

 “In 2006, we got an email out of the blue from a girl who had been a student of City Hearts from 1985-1989—until she had been taken out of state by her mother. She had performed in the Nutcracker, and had found a picture of herself on our website. She wrote to tell us how much it had meant to her, and later flew in from Texas to be at a ceremony honoring my husband, who city heartswas retiring. Elvira is now her 2nd year of law school and has her own dance company with which she tours the country. Those are two stellar examples.”

Evaluations of City Hearts programs over the years have repeatedly shown that youth involved in them have an increased enjoyment of learning; believe it’s important to do well in school; develop goals and dreams for the future; and believe the program helped improve their school skills. A recent independent evaluation by partner organization Para Los Ninos showed significant increases among participants in areas such as self-esteem, persistence at a task, and impulse control as well as specific math, language, and learning skills. City Hearts has become an integral part of prevention and rehabilitation efforts in Los Angeles’ inner city, and a model for youth diversion programs nationwide. The program now offers a service-learning component that brings its young performers to senior centers and youth homes, spreading the news that these formerly disaffected youth care for and are connected to their communities.

 city heartsCity Hearts: Kids Say 'Yes' To The Arts is committed to intervene in a loving, supportive and nurturing way to break the cycle of poverty, neglect, abuse, homelessness, delinquency and violence that destroys the lives of our children.Through the discipline and healing of classes, workshops and performing experiences in the Arts, City Hearts provides positive role models, enrichment and inspiration for our children to learn to be productive, creative, law-abiding members of society.

City Hearts is a non-profit organization which has offered free visual and performing arts classes to children in Los Angeles for over 24 years. Established in 1984 by criminal defense attorneys Sherry and Bob Jason, City Hearts was founded on the belief that the Arts are the most powerful tools to communicate with, nurture, and rehabilitate troubled youth at risk from gangs and drugs. City Hearts has come to be an integral part of the preventive and rehabilitative effort in Los Angeles, inner city, and serves as a model for youth diversion programs across the country.


city heartsFor further reading about the importance of the arts in brain development and interconnections between the arts and learning, see the following resources. --eds.

Harvard Educational Review, Summer 2002 issue: Arts with the Brain in Mind, by Eric Jensen, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001. 139 pp. $22.95.

Renaissance in the Classroom, edited by Gail Burnaford, Arnold Aprill, and Cynthia Weiss, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. 265 pp. $29.95 (paper). NOTE: The authors say that the products students create in many arts integrated units can become a catalyst for communication with and involvement of parents and the school community.

Project Zero: An educational research organization devoted to the study of the arts and education.

Music, Arts and the Brain, by Valerie Rhomberg, netsearched by R.M.J. Rhomberg-Stevenson
Does listening to Mozart really make you smarter? In view of the current interest in brain development, we thought the Internet could help shed some light on how music and the arts impact on the healthy development of the brain. Some websites, loaded with information, are listed below.
Americans for the Arts (Washington, DC).
This site links to numerous articles on arts in early childhood, such as Early Childhood Research Supports Arts Education. Several national US organizations have formed an Arts Education Partnership website at, which links to other sites such as the Young Children and the Arts – Research site at This encompasses information compiled by the Arts Education Partnership Taskforce on Children's Learning and the Arts: Birth to age Eight and the task force report, Young Children and the Arts: Making Creative Connections.

The Educational CyberPlayGround, run by the Diversity University Collaboratory, provides a wealth of information on arts/music in early child development, including elements such as research findings, auditory/brain plasticity and music; and more brain used when making music.

city heartsMusic (Education) for Young Children — Music and the Brain. With the recent explosion of research and publicity regarding music and its effect on brain development, this site refers to further resources on the topics including: MuSICA - the Music and Science Information Archive and the Mozart Effect Website.

Music In Schools on the Upbeat offers articles on the Importance of music education, and includes links to articles and research such as: Music Magic, connections between music, brain development and education, and music and the brain research.

is the National Arts & Education Information website, which includes a link to where you will find an excerpt from Dr. Frances H. Rauscher's report findings, Music beats Computers at Enhancing ECD.

MENC: National Association for Music Education, Early Childhood Special Research Interest Group website. This links to where an article is posted by Dr Arthur Harvey (University of Hawaii) entitled An Intelligence View of Music Education.

city heartsAdditional Related Resource Pages
Books on music & early child development: this website holds a relatively comprehensive
bibliography of related research over the past 80 years.

Neuroscience Links: Timing, Concentration and Motor Skills contains a bibliography of related research over the past 40 years.

The National Art Education Association's website lists numerous publications available on arts/music and early child development and education.

The website of the Early Childhood News newsletter, which list and link to various articles that have been published on art & music in early childhood. For example, links to an article by Cynthia Ensign Baney entitled Wired for Sound: The Essential Connection Between Music and Development. Valerie Rhomberg is the ECE training coordinator and an ECE instructor with Canadian Mothercraft Society in Toronto, Ontario. You can reach her by e-mail at R.M.J. Rhomberg/Stevenson is principal of WEBMINDER® research, marketing & design, and can be reached by fax at (416) 482-0450 or by email at © CCCF 2000 An article about the connections between music and early childhood brain development.

More Music and Teaching Links:

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