The phrase “trial by fire” is thrown around often to convey when a person is forced to prove their capabilities in a high-pressure situation that they’re not abundantly prepared for. At a moment in history when it seems like the whole world is on fire due to the COVID-19 pandemic, East End Arts’ new Education Director Kathleen Ruscick is proving that she can handle anything with a cool head, strong leadership and a clear vision. Hired at the end of February, she took over Riverhead’s East End Arts School on Monday, March 9, giving her only a few days to settle in before it was forced to close that Friday. By Monday, March 16, she and her team—namely Executive Director Diane Burke, Development Director Monique Parsons and registrars Amie Kennedy and Stephanie Brow—had successfully transitioned nearly all of the 119 private music lesson students and their instructors to an all-new online format. “The students are enjoying the lessons, and keeping that normalcy of weekly lessons has helped them,” Ruscick notes. “We do have some adults, but mostly the kids enjoy interacting on the video. They have no problem with that. It’s very comfortable for them.”
East End Arts School’s private online lessons offer one-on-one instruction in a variety of instruments including piano, violin, cello, guitar, trumpet, saxophone and vocals, with upright and electric bass and other instruments expected to be added soon. Each faculty member is available through a different platform ranging from FaceTime and Skype to Zoom and Google Duo. Adults can inquire about lessons for themselves and/or their kids by emailing [email protected], and lessons are open to the whole family. “We’re here and trying to get to as many courses out there so that they can be taken as a family, if they’d like,” she says. “Being stuck in the house with your family is cathartic in a weird way, it’s a way to get through it, and I think that’s what we all need right now—a little something creative to get our minds off what’s going on.” Ruscick’s long-term plans for the music program are to introduce more varied genres including rock, jazz and styles that today’s students are interested in playing, and also to cultivate student jam sessions, which she can attest have helped her son grow creatively as a musician.
Looking back at the roles that prepared Ruscick for this critical moment, it’s clear that she’s long proven to be a skilled leader. She’s worked as the general manager of School of Rock in Tenafly, New Jersey; center director of the Huntington Learning Center; marketing director of High Exposure Climbing; and art consultant for the former LIK Fine Art in East Hampton. She made the transition from New Jersey to Shelter Island in 2019 to take of her mother—Mary Dwyer, founder of the 2Rs4fun! literary enrichment program. “She is my hero!” Ruscick exclaims.
With years of experience in profit-based businesses, Ruscick’s new role is her first foray into the nonprofit sector, as well as into digital media. “I’ve really never done video, so I had to do research. It took me awhile to understand the learning curve, and I’ve been learning a ton,” she says, adding that Parsons, her development director, has been giving her a crash course in social media as well.
The first online art class to be offered is the six-week Seeing Mindfully Online Portrait Drawing Workshop taught by former New York school district art teacher Gary Long on Tuesdays and Thursdays from April 7 through May 16 at 1 p.m. Using demonstrations and individual instruction, Long will guide the Zoom group through his step-by-step process of observing, seeing mindfully and drawing reasonable likenesses. Visit eastendarts.org/school/classes.html for more information and to register at a discounted rate. Ruscick has more classes in the works—such as a children’s book illustrative, a Photoshop/photography workshop and a smart phone journaling class—so follow East End Arts School on Facebook at facebook.com/eastendartsschoolriverhead for updates. “Every morning I wake up with new ideas, and I’m trying to think how to keep this going,” she says.
Looking ahead, Ruscick is already reworking the annual summer camp, which she’s now extended through the whole summer. Each weeklong art and music camp will offer half-day and full-day options, so working locals and summer renters can both receive the childcare they require. “I think the most important thing for our school, since we’re a nonprofit and we’re so community-based, is to really look and see what the community needs,” she says. “That’s what my goal is here—to really get programs going and to work with the community so we can be that place for them.” Summer camp registration discounts have been extended through April 18, and full refunds will be given should social distancing mandates still be in place for the duration of the summer.
Ruscick asks that East Enders consider donating much-needed funds at eastendarts.org/membership/donate.html, but for those who are unable to support East End Arts monetarily, she’s asked that they donate old laptops and tablets instead. These will be given to the school’s art teachers who currently have no device on which to conduct an online class.
For more information on lessons, classes and camps, as well as scholarships for all three, visit eastendarts.org/school/overview.html.