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Aiken County Students Celebrate Summer Arts Success

Dozens of students from schools around Aiken County wrapped up a major component of their summer this week, with the annual showcases of  acGATEWAY (Aiken County’s Gifted and Talented Education with Artistic Youth), reaching students from third through 12th grades.

This year’s program director was Mabry MacGregor, and this year’s top honorees were Ariah Ekre, who is focusing on visual arts and preparing for her senior year at North Augusta High; and Benjamin Waits, a rising senior in the theater program at Aiken High. Ekre and Waits each received a Joe Laorenza Award, in honor of overall excellence and named in memory of a longtime band director who led programs in several schools around Aiken County (including acGATEWAY itself, for 19 years) and died in 2017 at age 69. Criteria for the Laorenza award include participation in the program for a student’s entire period of eligibility. 

This year’s program represented both familiar territory and some new challenges. The program, which reportedly dates back about 30 years, was not held at all in 2020, due to COVID-19 concerns, and it was scaled back in 2021, for the same reason. 

In order to comply with state requirements for funding, this year’s activities were spread over 30 half-day sessions, instead of 15 full-day sessions, as was the previous custom. The change meant “we were able to help the children produce something that was more polished,” MacGregor noted. She estimated this year’s attendance at about 125. 

The annual showcases include a display of creations by students in fine art, including painting, sculpture and creative writing (only at the middle- and high-school levels) and also a on-stage presentation in performing arts, with theater, dance and both instrumental and vocal music.

Ekre commented on the value of the program. “It really identifies potential in kids who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to be as creative as they can be here, and there’s a lot of cooperation that goes into it,” she said. 

She said she appreciates the fact that students “get to learn individually and learn how to work together.”

Click here to read the full Aiken Standard article. 

Bill Bengtson/Aiken Standard