Jasper County ranked 45th in the state in education in 2014, with 49 percent of third-graders testing below state standards in reading. The county’s high school dropout rate of 6.8 percent from 2013-14 ranked 46th.
When Jasper County Parks and Recreation Director Johnny Davis saw those stats from 2016 Kids Count South Carolina data, he felt compelled to try to raise awareness in a positive message.
On Saturday, thanks to a Promise Zone grant, he – and members of the community – built a new art park for kids in downtown Ridgeland.
“We were given a grant by the South Carolina Arts Commission. It was given to each county in the Promise Zone and part of the idea was that we were to try to determine an issue … to address and pick a project that would bring awareness and address that issue. We chose education, and in particular literacy, to address in our county,” said Davis.
“We could use the money in the private or public sector, but they wanted us not to create something new, but go with what had been working already in the area. We chose the Morris Center downtown because it was centrally located and had some good momentum with its opening and drawing in lots of folks from the outside. We decided to do an art park. It’s in the back of the center in an area that’s not being utilized, and we thought it would be the perfect place.”
Davis and his small Jasper County Arts Council embraced a simple theme – art of literacy. The idea is that literacy along with visual arts provide students invaluable ways to express themselves through words, pictures, paintings.
At the grand reveal on Saturday, kids and adults cycled in and out of the green lot next to the Morris Center on Jacob Smart Boulevard in Ridgeland to paint stepping stones, help build the giant scrabble board, and create paintings and drawings to display. Davis wanted the community to be proud of something and claim ownership.
The green space is just a small park, but Davis has a bigger vision to add murals to walls and even make the area a place to host outdoor movies for families.
He wants the area to evolve into a regular epicenter of community and fellowship. He doesn’t see a big need for playgrounds, or fancy installations, just an area where people can feel safe and express themselves. From there he hopes to spread the pressing issue of literacy.
“The best thing to do is bring awareness that there’s an issue. We do have an issue in Jasper County with illiteracy and drop-outs. With education being our focus …, we want to help provide places to go after school for kids, for them to not only express themselves through homework, but through art,” he said.
“Let them be creative and grow in that way, give them a chance to work their brains and learn to express themselves in a creative way, and we’ve got to give them opportunities to do that. We’ve got to provide places for them to go and do that.
“This project is not meant to solve the county’s issue, but just to bring awareness to it. Hopefully this jump-starts something bigger and better and we can start doing these things around all of the county.”
The art park project intends to highlight the poor literacy rates, but also promote local art. For the murals Davis wants to paint, he’s hoping to hold a contest at RHHS for students to come up with designs and get an entire group to paint two or more of them on a building by the Morris Center. He wants kids to come to the park to paint, draw, and perform – the Scrabble board is also a stage for kids, speakers, and artists, to utilize.
“There’s a bigger mission, bigger vision with this project,” said Davis. “This is kind of the jump-start.”
There’s more to highlight in Jasper’s schools besides test scores, and Davis hopes to do just that.