Watoto Academy of the Performing Arts uses the performing arts and history to improve the academics and social-emotional skills of students.


Watoto Academy of Performing Arts was founded in Memphis, TN 25 years ago. Since its beginning, Watoto has focused on powering academics and social emotional skills through rich experiences in the Arts. Learning comes to life as students experience African and African American music, dance, performance styles, literature and history.


Donald O’Conner, from Memphis, is the musician, songwriter, producer and certified music instructor who founded Watoto Academy of Performing Arts in 1987. He believed that local urban youth needed a program that addressed and reversed deeply rooted negative patterns of thinking and behavior which led to poor academic performance.

O’Conner drew inspiration from the rich and historical musical culture of African and African American people and the love that he believes all children have for performing arts activities. Watoto’s results have been impressive: serving a largely minority student population, all program graduates have successfully completed high school and many have gone on to college and post-graduate study. Students are instructed to:

  • think critically
  • explore and research
  • discover their talents and abilities
  • develop their own path in life
  • give and receive authentic feedback
  • collaborate with peers and collagues

Participation in Watoto builds self-esteem and develops leadership in students through deep experiences in the Arts. Starting with three year olds, Watoto programs develop and refine motor, social-emotional, language, literacy, voice, acting, dance, drumming and stage performance skills.

Key Programs at Meeting Street Academy

Watoto Butterfly/Bumble Bee (Pre-K – 3rd grade)

The goal is to improve motor skills, socio-emotional development, language, and literacy skills while building self-esteem through the arts.

WatotoFunzzies (K- 1st grade)

We introduce students to costuming and character/role playing.

Watoto I (2nd - 3rd grade)

The goal is to introduce the fundamentals of vocal music, drama/acting, dance, percussion, stage performance and movement.

Watoto II (4th – 5th grade)

Students receive advanced level performing arts training and build context through historical research of performance materials, all designed to support 5th graders as they transition into middle school.

Watoto Charleston Ambassadors Tour Ensemble (2nd - 5th grade)

Students earn the opportunity to perform locally and nationally.

Students earn the opportunity to perform locally and nationally.

We’re proud of our state of the art sound stage, DMX lighting system and Protols 12 digital recording studio where students are introduced to the latest techniques in composing, producing and recording music as well as stage production.

About the Director

Growing up in the Binghampton and Douglas communities of North Memphis, Mr Donald O’Conner understands firsthand the trauma that urban youth experience. He attributes the rise from these conditions to his high school music education program (Douglass High School) which served as a positive outlet for his musical talents, an escape from social trauma and a road to earning a full scholarship to Langston University. He earned a “Musical Prodigy” award that opened the door for the opportunity to study at Chicago’s Dunbar School with musical icons like Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, Herbie Hancock and Donny Hathaway. This led to work with some of the leading performers of the 70’s and 80’s, including Marvin Gaye, Chaka Kahn, Al Jarreau, and the Ojay’s.

O’Conner holds a B.A. in Music Education/Composition from Langston University, post graduate work at Vanderbilt University School of Divinity (with focus on the history of humanitarian and social change organizations). He also holds certificates of completion from numerous professional development programs, including The Center of Philanthropy at University of Indiana Fundraising School (Organizational Management), the Assisi Foundation (Framework for Understanding Poverty) and Leadership Memphis (Class of 2011). In addition, he was a 2010 nominee for the General Mills Feeding Dreams Award, a meritorious award given to outstanding community leaders and individuals from throughout the United States.

Meeting Street Academy is proud to welcome Donald and his family to Charleston, SC and wishes to express gratitude to Donald for sharing his many skills and talents!