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Firespark! at Brenau ignites students college interest
Erin Teixeira forms her piece of clay at the potter’s wheel Tuesday afternoon at Brenau University during the annual Firespark! camp.

With budget cuts threatening arts and enrichment programs across the state, the chance to delve into a favorite subject or go beyond the normal high school curriculum is a real treat for some students.

Despite money-saving cuts at her school, Elizabeth Davis — a student at Lumpkin County High school — has found a way to expand her art education.

She’s found Firespark!, a two-week summer camp at Brenau University that allows students to have a college experience and learn about a chosen field of interest.

“Lately, there have been a lot of budget cuts in school programs, and I know in Lumpkin especially, they’ve been taking it a lot out of the arts department,” Davis said. “So we don’t really have a lot of opportunities. It’s just going to affect us in the long term.”

But she said Firespark! goes above and beyond what she’s able to learn in her high school, even what she was able to learn in her high school before budget cuts began.

“I think that’s the main thing,” said Sarah Schmitt, a camper from Atlanta. “It’s not just painting and drawing and studying art history.”

According to Vanessa Grubbs, a Firespark! instructor, there is a draw back to expecting outside enrichment programs to fill in the gaps created by cuts to arts programs.

“The unfortunate part is that it means that the families have to be financially able,” Grubbs said. “So, you’re disenfranchising a large number of people who aren’t able.”

Tim Daniel, director of Firespark! and headmaster at Brenau Academy, said he sees Firespark! as a supplement to normal high school programs, not a substitution. It’s a chance for campers to intensively study something they might want to pursue as a career.

“I think they can learn what it’s really like,” Daniel said. “And also what it’s like to study that at the college level. It gives them a little bit of a window to the future.”

Though the camp began more than 30 years ago with a primarily arts slant, Daniel said students can now choose between five majors — art and design, dance, mass communication, theater and the camp’s newer medical scholars program.

This year, classes are smaller and students concentrate on just one area of study, rather than dabbling in classes from several fields of interest.

Though Daniel said the economy may have had some role in the smaller enrollment — about 50 campers compared to more than 100 in past years — he said decreasing class sizes was also an intentional move.

“We really chose to downsize to give the students that small group, cohort type of experience,” he said.

Students remain with their cohort for classes throughout the day. In the evenings, the entire camp gathers for special programs, such as a camp-wide variety show.

On the weekends, participants relax with outings and field trips, and Sunday, campers visiting from Greece will host a cultural experience, complete with a traditional Greek dinner, for the other students.

Firespark! partners with a Greek school. The foreign students work to improve their English, experience life in America and just have fun at camp. Participants also come from states such as New York, Illinois and Maryland.

For staff member Sarah Magness, the camp is a unique, life-changing experience. This is her 10th summer at Firespark!, and she interacts with students both in their classes and in the dorms.

“People are just kind of finding their niche,” Magness said. “They feel like they fit in. They might be the weird kid in their high school — the one that stands out — but here, they have people who are just like them, who they can fit in with and have the same experience with.”

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