Arts & Entertainment

Who should be responsible for arts education?

Area organizations pick up some of the slack.

July 5, 2013
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Who should be responsible for arts education?
As public schools struggle with budget constraints, the arts community is stepping in to provide some assistance with instruction. Courtesy Thinkstock

Who should be responsible for teaching arts education to kids and young people? Historically, it’s been the responsibility of schools, but as public schools struggle with tightening budgets and standardized test scores, arts education has taken a beating. Some schools have dropped their arts classes entirely, while others have had to cut back on those offerings.

In the last several years there has been a strong push by educators and those involved in the arts communities to emphasize the value of arts education. Numerous studies have shown that students who receive an arts education — either through dedicated discipline classes like music, painting and creative writing, or through integrating the arts with other disciplines like math or science — are more successful academically.

There are too many studies to cite, but artsedsearch.org, a database for arts education related studies, provides a comprehensive list with summaries of each study and its impact on arts education and an analysis of its implications for educational policy and practice.

Additionally, Michigan-based group ArtServe has joined with the Cultural Data Project to begin documenting the economic gains the arts and arts-related professions provide Michigan’s economy. The findings are changing policymakers’ minds about the value of the arts to the state.

With just 10 percent of the state’s arts organizations reporting, ArtServe found that, in 2012, those groups generated half a billion dollars for their local communities. Additionally, arts and cultural destinations bring in 16 percent of the state’s tourism revenues.

These studies could help arts education make a comeback, but money is still an issue.

Some schools are trying to find alternative solutions to providing arts-specific courses that allow students to receive arts education alongside core disciplines like math, science and English.

Additionally, arts organizations seem to be picking up some of the slack by increasing their educational programming and reaching out to kids in low-income areas.

It has been noted that the kids who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to education in general are most likely those not receiving any arts instruction in their schools, despite studies that show how much arts education could improve their overall academic performance. It’s a discouraging cycle for many involved in education.

“When a lot of funding was cut in the school system, we tried to hop on board,” explained Cathy Holbrook, executive director for St. Cecilia’s Music Center.

St. Cecilia’s School of Music provides musical education to students at its downtown location; however, it was becoming clear that many students who could benefit most weren’t able to access it due to cost and lack of transportation.

During its strategic planning meetings, the St. Cecilia board acknowledged that if students are not learning about the arts and developing an appreciation for them while they are young, they will not likely be interested when they are older either, meaning that performance hall seats will be empty.

The conclusion is one that many other arts organizations such as symphonies and theaters have made and has no doubt contributed to the increase in educational programming being offered by organizations.

St. Cecilia’s began offering music education to Grand Rapids Public Schools students at their schools. It currently works with Dickinson Elementary and Harrison Park Elementary, providing instruments, instruction and music. It hopes to grow the program by one new school a year. The cost is $20,000 per school per year for the programming.

West Michigan Symphony provides music education to students in their schools and at its offices. WMS is involved in the Carnegie Hall Link Up program. Developed for students in grades three to five, the program introduces them to orchestra music and teaches them how to read, play and compose music on the recorder. It culminates with a performance with the professional orchestra in the concert hall each school year.

“We added our own touch to it: a music mentor program,” said Carla Hill, president and CEO of WMS. “Our own musicians are paid to adopt schools. So every year we have between six and eight musician mentors that adopt schools and they go to each of the schools as part of the Link Up program and just interact with the kids and work with the teachers. Quite often the teachers are not music teachers — and the program was designed to not have to be taught by a music teacher because in some cases, there aren’t any anymore,” she said.

The Link Up program reaches 4,000 students each year, with mentors going into more than 52 schools in five counties. The program is free, and WMS will even pay for the recorders and concert busing if the school cannot afford it. The program costs WMS approximately $65,000 each year.

“I think that is probably something that you will hear echoed from not just orchestras but other kinds of art organizations who are definitely feeling that part of our mission is to reach out to the youth with beginning music programs or continued music programs,” Hill said. “Some orchestras have even started music schools. That’s not something that we have right now, but it is certainly something we are considering. We have a youth symphony and we’ve started a program called Debut Strings, which is for string students who are too young and not ready to audition for the youth symphony.”

Still, despite feeling an increasing obligation to provide arts education to students in their communities and seeing it as good business for the future sustainability of the organizations, many arts organizations have expressed the desire that schools retain a central role in providing arts education to students.

Whether economically troubled schools that have had to cut or end arts education classes can find a way to integrate the arts into the core curriculum and preparations for standardized tests remains to be seen. It does seem like a new model for delivering arts education to kids and young people is on the horizon. Making sure that kids from all socio-economic backgrounds have access to this education is a key concern for educators and arts organizations. Future audiences, corporate sponsorships, and a pipeline of future performers depend on it.

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