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How nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds banishes boredom and instills a love for learning

How nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds banishes boredom and instills a love for learning
January 2024

Proceeds from the January 20 Charleston Half-Marathon benefit the organization

As arts programming was being cut from schools, nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds recruited educators to find ways to use art and music to teach math, science, and history in classrooms, after-school programs, and summer camps.

For too many students, school equals seven hours of desk-time drudgery. Add in teachers who are bogged down by the daily drilling of learning standards, and curiosity and creativity can become notably absent from the classroom. Charleston-based nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds (ECM) strives to rethink the educational blahs and rekindle students’ love for learning using an outside-the-book approach. 

“Our mission is to spark creativity and curiosity in all learners through innovative and experiential learning,” explains longtime executive director Robin Berlinsky, whose career path has included classroom teaching and a stint as educational director with the Lowcountry Children’s Museum. “We want every student to achieve academically, stay engaged in school, and succeed in life, while also helping educators develop teaching strategies in arts integration and entrepreneurship that foster communication, critical thinking, self-awareness, and future planning.”

Ten years ago, as arts programming was steadily being trimmed from school budgets, a local band of school administrators, educators, and politicians teamed up to find a solution. With guidance from similar organizations around the country, the group established this nonprofit aimed at bringing arts back into the classroom.

Since then, ECM has successfully introduced local artists, science and technology professionals, and cultural organizations to the tri-county’s four school districts. The nonprofit offers free after-school opportunities in more than a dozen locations, as well as statewide STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) camps to bridge the summer learning gap, but its custom in-school series makes up the bulk of its reach. “Our model is more system than program. We don’t use cookie-cutter lesson plans; our projects are all organic and unique to each school,” says Berlinsky.

Engaging Creative Minds provides professional development for leaders of after-school programs.

Every partnership begins with a brainstorming session between the curriculum coach and grade-level teachers so that ECM can better understand the educators’ objectives. “Say a fourth-grade team wants to use a visual arts experience to teach specific social studies standards,” explains Berlinsky. “The ECM instructor may turn to indigo dyeing as a hands-on way to teach students about farming and trading in colonial America.” 

In addition, a 2022 merger with YESCarolina, which worked to help students develop business skills, allowed ECM to add a high school entrepreneurship program to its offerings, creating a kindergarten through grade 12 pipeline.

(Left) Engaging Creative Minds helps school districts with programming for summer camps that teach dance and math; (Right) C.E. Williams Middle School students learn theater during an after-school program.

ECM embeds professional development opportunities into its experiences by inviting teachers to remain in the classroom and participate alongside their students. This allows educators to not only glean new strategies for engaging learners, such as using dance to explain force and motion, but also to gain a fresh appreciation for their students’ strengths and abilities. The process is making the grade, with 88 percent of participating educators recently reporting that they’re more excited about teaching because of their work with ECM.

The nonprofit serves thousands of students annually on an operating budget of $4.1 million, receiving funding from partnerships with the South Carolina Arts Commission, Arts Grow SC, corporate support, grants, individual donations, and federal dollars through the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. And proceeds from the Charleston Marathon help the organization keep pace with the needs of participating schools. The event, which takes place on January 20, raises about $65,000 for ECM, while creating additional opportunities for contributions. Every runner who participates in the downtown race will receive a handwritten thank-you note from a student beneficiary of the nonprofit’s programs, yet another innovative effort to keep South Carolina’s students on course.