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The first time young photographer Jose Lagares boarded an airplane, on a journey from his native Ponce, Puerto Rico, to his adopted home of Buffalo at age 14, he and his younger brother couldn’t contain their excitement.

As they soared over the Atlantic toward their new lives in Buffalo, the brothers chattered so loudly that they woke up the other passengers on the plane. But Lagares, now 18 and a student at Lafayette High School, was too euphoric to care. His only regret, he said during an interview earlier this week, was that he didn’t have a camera with him to take pictures through the window.

On Friday, some four years after that unforgettable trip, Lagares boarded another plane. This time he was headed to Washington, D.C., to accept an award from first lady Michelle Obama on behalf of Buffalo’s CEPA Gallery, his after-school destination for the past two years. And you can bet he was snapping pictures the whole way.

The 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, given annually to 12 after-school arts programs across the United States, is well-deserved recognition for CEPA’s extensive youth programs.

The gallery, which was founded in 1974 to showcase experimental photography, has become one of the city’s many shining examples of art’s potential to transform young lives.

For Lagares, whose landscape photographs and portraits show a keen eye for light and line and a mature sense of composition, the gallery’s programs have given him a set of skills and a sense of self-confidence that is becoming much more difficult to find in the city’s rickety and mismanaged education system.

Those assets are especially elusive at schools like Lafayette, where language barriers make the already gaping cracks in the city’s public school system all the more pronounced.

For thousands of others, CEPA’s programs and dozens more like them throughout Western New York, have served as an increasingly important supplement to an education system that is failing too many of the students who need it to succeed the most.

CEPA Director Sean Donaher, who has worked over the past decade to expand the gallery’s after-school and in-school programs along with longtime education director Lauren Tent and former director Lawrence Brose, said the criteria for the national award were wide-ranging.

“They’re looking for impacts on academics and graduation rates and what I feel are hard-to-quantify statistical outcomes. When we design and build our programs, those are certainly concerns of ours, as they are concerns of the community, but we’re striving to go at it in a different way,” he said. “What I think our programs do illustrate and illustrate very well is an increased capacity for learning in terms of developing new skills.”

Donaher suggested that programs like CEPA’s fill in a widening hole in the education system by focusing on creativity.

“I think one of the negative outcomes of things like the Common Core” – the emerging, testing-based national education standards – “and the rigidity of the school day is that it’s hard to fit that stuff into the school day and it’s gonna get lost on the students,” he said.

Viewed in this context, the National Arts and Humanities awards have to be seen both as a celebration of grass-roots community creativity and an indictment of a school system that in some ways systematically excludes creativity from its standards-based curriculum.

The trouble with creativity, as Donaher notes, is that it’s difficult if not impossible to measure accurately. Its benefits accrue organically throughout an entire life in ways that are as much emotional as intellectual.

The architects of the Common Core, while not entirely deaf to arts-based success stories, are less likely to be moved by anecdotes and emotional pleas than hard data. And that’s understandable.

Whether a bigger place can eventually be carved out for creativity in the common core remains to be seen.

But we can at least be thankful that organizations like CEPA are stepping in to give Lagares and other students opportunities and experiences they wouldn’t get anywhere else.

email: dabkowski@buffnews.com