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Ballet students at Tampa homeless school get free shoes

Metropolitan Ministries Partnership School fifth grader Jennasis Pratts, 10, center, puts her new ballet shoes on with the help of her instructor, Ashley Hilton, left, alongside other classmates including Cedric Fagins, 11, center right,  and Isabella Andujar, 10, right, before one of their free ballet lessons from the Straz Center's Patel Conservatory at the Bob Gilberston Central City YMCA, Thursday, September 25, 2014.  [SAM OWENS   |   Times]
Metropolitan Ministries Partnership School fifth grader Jennasis Pratts, 10, center, puts her new ballet shoes on with the help of her instructor, Ashley Hilton, left, alongside other classmates including Cedric Fagins, 11, center right, and Isabella Andujar, 10, right, before one of their free ballet lessons from the Straz Center's Patel Conservatory at the Bob Gilberston Central City YMCA, Thursday, September 25, 2014. [SAM OWENS | Times]
Published Sept. 26, 2014

TAMPA — Athena Altman, a third-grade student at Metropolitan Ministries Partnership School, looked back at herself in a full-length dance mirror Thursday morning. She was wearing a green sweat shirt, a navy skirt, a pair of brand-new ballet slippers — and a beaming smile.

Athena, 8, is in her fourth year of ballet lessons and loves it. Her school serving homeless children partners with the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts' Patel Conservatory to provide the students — kindergartners through fifth-graders — with 30 minutes of ballet instruction each week. The classes fit within the school's physical education requirement.

Since the school year started in late August, the students have been dancing barefoot in a small studio in the Tampa YMCA next door to the school. On Thursday, Athena and the rest of the students at Metropolitan Ministries were fitted with a their own pairs of ballet shoes — beige for the girls, black for the boys.

This is the eighth year of the partnership between Metropolitan Ministries and the Patel Conservatory, and Ashley Hilton, 30, a dance instructor at the conservatory, has been teaching the students for all eight years.

"I was thinking back to one of my former students and he's in seventh grade now, and it's great to see them grow as individuals and as dancers," Hilton said.

Daphne Fourqurean, the principal of the Metropolitan Ministries school, said the students can learn a lot through ballet, even if few of them are aspiring dancers.

"I think a lot of it is self-discipline because they really need to take instruction," Fourqurean said. "There's a direct correlation between students who dance and higher levels of achievement."

Each year, the lessons culminate in a school production at the Straz Center. That's the students' favorite part, Hilton said.

"At the end of the year when they do their show, they're so proud of themselves," she said.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 226-3446 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.