The edge between magic and disaster. CATS uses the arts to help kids graduate and turn their lives around.

CATS graduate D'Andre Warren. | provided

The edge of a miracle or the verge of disaster.

That was the fine line Maddie Deck walked before she eventually learned to use art to cope with life’s adversities and turn her life around.

But before the young, cheerful woman could blossom into that miracle, disaster was imminent. Deck, then a high school student, had fallen behind on credits and could not graduate.

It was a juggling act. At home, financial instability and family struggles with drug addiction overwhelmed her. She did not think about the future, and college had never been a possibility.

When a school credit recovery program flyer happened into her hands, Deck saw it as a way to earn the credits needed to graduate. But the Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studios (CATS) would become much more than that.

Grow with Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studio
Maddie Deck in class painting a self-portrait while still a student at CATS. | provided
Grow with Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studio
Maddie Deck on the first CATS trip to Yellowstone National Park. | provided
Grow with Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studio Grow with Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studio

A Unique Model

Created in 2001, CATS is the only program of its kind in the country to partner with a public school system.

"Like many public schools across the country, CPS struggles with significant expulsion and suspension rates, low graduation rates, higher dropout rates and low academic performance,” says Clara Martin, CEO of CATS and a former Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) administrator. “We’re working to change that.”

CATS is modeled after the successful Manchester Bidwell program in Pittsburgh, founded by social entrepreneur Bill Strickland. The program nurtures a close relationship with the public school district, assisting around 400 CPS students at risk of not graduating each year, most of whom live below the federal poverty level.

"A large percentage of our families don't have the financial foundation to give their kids the kind of exposures and security that middle-class families do,” Martin says. “When our kids come in, they have been focusing on survival, and survival is an immediate, minute-to-minute kind of existence.”

It certainly was the case for Deck. Before CATS, she had never really thought about the future.

That reality slowly began to change as she took every ceramics, painting, drawing and photography class available at CATS. The agency became her safe haven, and art a stress reliever.

D'Andre Warren

Using Art to Heal and Propel Future Careers

"When you come here, you are painting, you are drawing, there is music going on," Deck says. "I didn't use to care about anything. They've really opened my eyes about a lot of things."

Art lends itself to those revelations, according to Martin. When kids express themselves artistically, they are able to process the emotions and feelings they have experienced, she says.

But that is not the only way art is helping those students. By engaging them in such activities, CATS is also teaching students to become evaluative, manage resources, voice their opinions and collaborate with peers, all of which Martin says are important life skills.

“When they get here and they are encouraged, and supported, and told that they too have value, they blossom and grow,” Martin says. “They see that they can create their lives the same way they create art. Our kids are learning to keep going. It may not always turn out exactly like you thought it would, but you can keep working at it until it becomes something you are satisfied with. That is very much like life.”

In doing so, CATS students are overcoming many of the challenges that set them back. Deck says CATS teachers and employees have helped her cope with the instability she faced at home and pushed her to graduate from school, apply to college and plan for a better future. CATS continues to support students 18 months after graduation.

That is the norm for CATS – the program continues to support students 18 months after graduation.

Bridging the Gap

Mid-senior year, Deck enrolled in CATS’ Bridging the Gap program, which prepares students for job opportunities with companies such as PNC Bank and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The program teaches students soft skills and provides opportunities to get certified in multiple areas. Deck is getting the STNA (State Tested Nurse Aide) certification and will attend the University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash campus in the spring, while working part time at a local hospital.

Still, Deck says CATS is a place she can come back to whenever she needs support.

"They are stable, they are with you forever,” Deck says. “I know they will always be here to help me, as old as I get. It's a very good feeling, it's always good to have somebody there."

Grow with Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studio
Bridging the Gap

That sentiment is common amongst CATS students. D’Andre Warren, 19, who fell behind on credits after he was bullied in school, says his teachers helped him overcome his shyness.

"It [CATS] was a whole lot different,” Warren says. “I felt like I could be myself around those people without feeling judged. The staff was amazing. They were so nice and supportive."

Deck and Warren’s stories are only a few of CATS’ successes. On average, 90 percent of seniors enrolled in the program graduate, and nearly 50 percent enroll in college or post-secondary training.

These victories reverberate far beyond the students, according to Martin, who believes higher graduation rates and a stronger school district make the community more attractive to businesses and outsiders.

It is also sparing community resources. "By saving our young people, who ultimately could become the poster children of poverty of tomorrow, we are saving the community millions of dollars in that these kids don't end up in community programs.”

But more importantly, Martin says the program is establishing patterns of success for those young adults, who will then provide an example for their own children, and the children after them.

"Anytime you begin to educate young people and set them on a path towards sustainable employment, you are helping to break that cycle of poverty,” Martin says. “I think we will see the benefit of that over time. You can change a generation, and then future generations, one person at a time.”

Fernanda Crescente is a Brazilian turned Cincinnatian. Her work has been featured in USA TODAY, the Cincinnati Enquirer and WCPO-TV.