Progressive Arts Alliance Visionary Leaving Cleveland for NYC’s Lincoln Center

Santina Protopapa working with kindergarteners at Mound STEM School in Cleveland in 2015 during a Progressive Arts Alliance arts-integration program.

These days, educators seemingly can’t talk enough about how STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) enhances critical thinking and problem solving in students.

However, it wasn’t too long ago that Santina Protopapa, a Valley View native and Cuyahoga Heights High School graduate, saw a connection between the arts and academic success.

She co-founded Progressive Arts Alliance (PAA), which today helps educators, schools and professional artists work collaboratively using arts integration to develop and nurture critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills.

While PAA continues to flourish, Protopapa recently announced her departure from the nonprofit for greener pastures in the Big Apple. She was named director of educational partnerships for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

CoolCleveland talked to Protopapa last week as she was literally packing up her belongings for the big move.

Santina, no, say it isn’t so.

I wish I could say that, but I’m knee deep in boxes.

Tell us about your decision to leave Northeast Ohio for the amazing job opportunity with the Lincoln Center.

It was a really, really hard decision. Progressive Arts Alliance has been my life since 2002 when I founded it with a group of friends. We were really committed to thinking differently about how to teach through the arts to kids. I’ve been leading the charge to build that vision since then. And so, that makes it really difficult to want to leave something that you built in your hometown.

But at the same time, when I was offered Lincoln Center opportunity, I stepped back and asked, “OK, with the staff assembled now and with the program, the quality of our service to the community, will PAA still exist if I’m not here?” And I unequivocally said, “Yes.” We have a really fabulous team. I felt really confident about our board of directors being able to steward the next phase of growth here. That’s how it all came together.

Let’s go back to the origins of PAA. At the time, what was it you sensed the community needed?

In 2002, myself and a group of artists were really committed to exploring how we can use hip-hop culture and other forms of popular music and media to reach kids. We started that with our first program, our annual [Rhapsody Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp], which has since grown and was recognized by the White House. And as we grew, we were looking at how we could embed in our schools. So that’s also our really big accomplishment, which has become this really strong partner especially to the Cleveland School District. And it’s not just hip-hop stuff we do. We do a lot of contemporary media and art forms that are integrated into the core curriculum. We do a lot of with maker tools and the maker movement, using that in fine arts and a lot of the K-8 STEM schools in Cleveland. So, we’re becoming a valuable partner in not only the arts, but also in education.

Looking back over the last 15 years, what kind of impact did PAA have on empowering students?

There are countless stories. School attendance has increased because of PAA. We have two former students who are now adults that are full-time staff members. We’ve had principals come up to us and say, “You’ve changed my mind. I never thought that arts could be a way to increase engagement at our school, and make our school a vibrant culture, and you’ve done that.” In 2002, at hip-hop camp there were about a dozen kids. Now we’re serving about 1,500 kids a semester. We’re probably around over 4,000 kids with our summer programming and our school-year program. We’ve now been embedded in the Cuyahoga County Library system for the last eight years. We’ve been in every branch. It’s not just about Cleveland kids. We’re seeing kids from all over the region. That’s also really gratifying.

Very few of us get to live our dream impacting a community for generations to come. What does that feel like?

I just got chills when you said it. It’s humbling. I’m the daughter and granddaughter of people who came over on the boat from Europe. Who came to Cleveland for a better life, and I’m just so unbelievably humbled and grateful that Cleveland gave me an opportunity to build something that has changed a lot of lives and changed my life and opened up new thinking that I never would have imagined. Perseverance is the No. 1 thing I’ve learned through all of this. It wasn’t easy the last 15 years. But being a student of music since I was a kindergartener, and learning the value of perseverance in applying that lesson to PAA, has made all of the difference.

Finally, we better not see you on social media donning a Yankees cap.

No way. I may have an apartment in New York City, but Cleveland is home. I’m very proud and excited about everything that Cleveland is and is moving towards.

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