A group of Beaufort County middle school students are pondering solutions to a question important to Mayor Billy Keyserling and other members of Beaufort City Council:
What can be done to jump-start revitalization of the city's historic Northwest Quadrant?
"They need to make it people-friendly," said Clifford Johnson, a student at Robert Smalls Middle School. "They need a place for people to sit and chat and gather. ... And we need to gather up all those stray cats and put them somewhere."
Students are studying Bladen Street this week as part of a design arts course called "Beaufort's Built Environment." The course teaches what roles artists, architects and city planners play in revitalizing a community.
The week-long course is part of the Beaufort County School District's first "DaVinci Days," a series of free creative arts workshops offered to artistically gifted and talented students throughout the county during fall break.
The classes, offered at Beaufort Elementary School and the Hilton Head Island schools campus, are designed to provide art education that extends beyond what is typically taught during the school year, said Margaret Rushton, the district's fine arts coordinator.
Money from the S.C. Department of Education earmarked for gifted and talented education paid for the workshops, Rushton said.
About 80 students are enrolled in eight courses that include musical theater, ceramics and visual arts, as well as a course on the ancient arts that has taught students to build Native American-style flutes from river cane and African drums from gourds.
Madison Mullen, a sixth-grader at Lady's Island Middle School, is learning the basics of singing, acting and dancing in a musical theater class. Students wrote their own 15-minute musical, called "Drama High" about a new girl at school and her effort to make friends.
"I hope one day I will be an actress, and hopefully this will help," Mullen said. "We get to act and make everything -- the props, the stage -- exactly how we want it."
Students studying Bladen Street are building a model of the area using boxes. They heard from Keyserling and community planners about ideas for the neighborhood and spent two hours walking and studying the street, from Bay Street to the Beaufort National Cemetery.
They analyzed the quality of infrastructure, studied how green space is used and came up with ideas on what could be done to improve the neighborhood and attract businesses.
Tafari Salaam, an eighth-grader at Beaufort Middle School, said the cracked pavement on the streets and sidewalks should be fixed so people feel comfortable walking in the area.
"It's not very attractive for tourists," he said, "but that's one of the first streets to downtown Beaufort."
Autumn Graves, a student at Robert Smalls Middle School, said the street needs a store or restaurant that would provide jobs and a place for residents to gather.
"A place for senior citizens to sit there and talk about the good times," she said. "Not huge -- just a calm, relaxing place, with a pond or a fountain."
After studying the make-up of Bladen Street, students agreed planning an attractive community is hard work.
"And that's just one street, too," Clifford said.