Esther F. Garrison Elementary School is resilient.
A decade ago, the building and campus were in need of an overhaul. Then-Principal Lynette Angeloni partnered with Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to reinvigorate the property with an investment totaling over $200,000.
"They came in an transformed the school," current school principal Aysha Parks told me. "They painted. They added different structures in the courtyard… They donated books, and just gave the school a face lift."
The result of that work are still visible today, with a two rows of palm trees that SCAD planted flanking the walkway to the school’s front doors, and artwork that the university donated greeting visitors in the main entryway.
On the ten-year anniversary of that gift, however, new challenges face the visual and performing arts school. The institution, which counts itself amongst Savannah’s Choice Programs, has had to deal with the same issues that most schools across the country have had to deal with due to health concerns over COVID-19.
Parks is taking those challenges head on.
"[The students] did not have the normal ending to the school year," she admitted. "And like so many other campuses and so many other schools, we still tried to make that special for them. We delivered signs to their homes. We had our first ever online awards ceremony for our eighth grade class for fine art. And we will continue to try to ensure that they feel connected."
In many ways, Principal Parks’ can-do attitude and beaming optimism is reminiscent of the spirit of the school’s namesake, Esther F. Garrison, a hard-working and determined community activist and youth advocate.
"She was a former Savannah school board member," Parks told me. "Her contributions to the community were enormous. She was active in her church and played a huge role in the children in her church getting vocal lessons and music lessons."
According to a short film made about Garrison’s life that came out in 2019, she was also the longtime secretary of the local branch of the NAACP, and it wasn’t uncommon for the civil rights leader W.W. Law to stop by her house for planning sessions. Former Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson described her as "a worker" and said when she spoke "you had to listen." Garrison was also recognized as a meticulous note-keeper and planner. She passed away on February 21st, 1987.
"So she served the community well and it’s fitting that the school was named after her," added Parks.
As the difficulties presented due to the health crisis continue, threatening the institution’s typical fall start to the school year, Parks will need a little bit of that penchant for planning Esther F. Garrison was known for as she looks for new and innovative ways to ensure that the students continue to thrive.
"Our fine arts teachers are working together this summer," Parks told me. "We’re working together with other schools…not only in this area. But just to make sure that the arts [are] ever present in the lives of our students who are here, because they have the connection with one or more of the fine arts that we offer."
As was typical during our conversation, Parks took little of the credit, instead shining the spotlight on her teachers and their students.
"There are so many ideas that are already going forth," she stated with optimism. "Involving the children is critical. They have so many ideas, as well as our amazing staff here. But it’s going to take all of us working together and I am confident that we have the right people at the right time to take our program even further."
Listen to my entire conversation with Garrison Elementary Principle Aysha Parks embedded here.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.