Typing the phrases “Federal budget cuts” and “Arts education” into Google searc has usually been a discouraging endeavor in the economic climate of the past few years. With slices being made in virtually all aspects of funding for art and humanities programs nationwide, the outlook for the future of the arts in public schools seems, at times, to be a grim one.
However, a panel discussion held at Art Center Sarasota on Thursday evening stressed the value of a solid arts curriculum and carried hopeful undertones regarding the future of art programs in schools countywide.
The panel consisted of Nancy Roucher, Chair of the Arts Education Task Force of Sarasota County, Thomas Crisp, Assistant Professor in the Department of Childhood Education and Literacy Studies at USF Sarasota-Manatee, and Debra Markley, Art Department Chair and AP Art teacher at Sarasota High School. Serving as moderator was Bonnie Greenball Silvestri, Senior Fellow for Arts, Culture, and Civic Engagement for the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership and instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences at USF Sarasota-Manatee.
“Much of what we do in schools today comes out of a factory model,” Crisp explained. “We seem to have this nostalgic view of the past and a desire to ‘go back to the basics.’ It’s a myth that things were better in the past, though.”
Rather than sticking to the basics, Crisp stressed the importance of keeping a strong arts curriculum in the public school system to help students build upon imagination and creativity, which he said would ultimately lead to innovation.
Crisp cited a 25-year Harvard study in which school superintendents throughout the United States were asked to identify which subjects they believed to be crucial to their students’ success. According to Crisp, superintendents across the nation listed Creative Writing, Drama, Studio Art and Music as the top 4 most beneficial courses. However, less than 20% of respondents reported that students in their school district had to take music, art, or drama classes as a graduation requirement.
“People see the arts as entertainment or a fringe benefit, but they don’t see them as being critical to our children’s future,” said Greenball Silvestri.
However, national statistics and local teachers and students alike provided insights into arts education which indicate that, contrary to the general public’s opinion, the arts are a very vital element to children’s success.
Crisp shared another nationwide statistic which states that students engaged in arts education score, on average, 100 points higher on the SATs than those without an arts background. Furthermore, he said, the average drop-out rate for students with 3 or more years of arts education is only 1.8%, whereas students without a background in the arts average a 4.8% drop-out rate.
“The arts are part of what keep our kids in school,” said Markley. “It’s the art classes that kids enjoy. There are no wrong answers in art. Some of these kids come to school just to go to their art classes.”
Cole Stroop, a Sarasota High School senior and student of Markley’s Advanced Placement 2D Studio Art and Photography classes voiced her agreement.
“Art gives us a way to be good at something that isn’t completely academic,” she said.
The future University of Florida Elementary Education major said that she has been awarded nearly $5,000 in scholarships for her photography.
According to Markley, on a yearly basis Sarasota High School students receive between $50,000 and $100,000 in art-related scholarships.
Stroop, who is currently engaged in a rigorous schedule that includes five Advanced Placement (AP) courses, said that her art classes have also provided a healthy outlet for the stress caused by the pressure of her heavy academic course load.
Fellow AP student, Lauren Litchet, seconded Stroop’s opinion.
“Going to art classes every day gives me something to look forward to,” she said.
Litchet, who had no prior interest in art before she began taking photography classes in high school, said that art has taught her to think outside the box and has changed her whole outlook on life. Before she began taking art courses, she thought that “Kids who took art had no ambition.” Now, however, the future Pre-Med student is considering minoring in Photography in college to balance out her studies.
Hannah Gregory, a student in the International Baccalaureate Program spoke passionately about her arts education as well.
“Without the arts, I wouldn’t be able to formulate my own ideals,” she said. “Art is a key part of my life. It helps us form into the kind of people we want to be. Without it, I feel like we’d be some kind of horrible apocalyptic society.”
Roucher discussed the connection between the arts and the economy of Sarasota’s richly cultured community.
“The arts have a tremendous economic impact on this community,” she said. “It’s one place where a student who graduates from a Sarasota school can actually get a job in the arts.”
Roucher also shared hopeful possibilities for the future of arts education in Sarasota:
Any Given Child, an initiative created by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., encourages arts integration in K-8 school curriculums throughout the country by working with the school districts and local arts groups to provide economic incentives.
Currently, Any Given Child is at work in Sacramento, Calif., Tulsa, Ok, Las Vegas, Springfield, Mo, and Portland, Ore and plans to expand to five more communities across the nation.
According to Roucher, Sarasota is currently in the running to be the 6th city in the United States to be involved in the initiative. The decision is expected to be announced sometime in the next three to four weeks.
“If it happens,” Roucher said, “It would be a wonderful opportunity to leverage the great things we already have.”
Silvestri asked the panelists about their opinions regarding the common argument that the arts should be delegated to after-school programs in lieu of being a strong presence in schools’ required curriculums.
Crisp insisted that the arts need to be part of the daily school schedule, rather than merely an after-school option.
“Often those who participate in after-school programs are the ones already interested and involved in the arts. Those who need to be immersed in the arts are not always taking part.” He cited a list of reasons why, including after-school jobs, transportation and the necessity of caring for younger siblings at home.
“The arts have to get out of the teacher’s lounge and into the mainstream,” she said. “When we talk about integration, we’re talking about a balanced curriculum.”
As a high school art teacher, Markley witnesses the impact that art education has on her students on a daily basis. Tears came to her eyes as she discussed the successes of her students.
She shared the success story of one exceptional education student who will soon be travelling to New York City’s Carnegie Hall to accept a national award for his photography. She also voiced her admiration of her students who have opened their own successful photography businesses locally, having used the money they’ve been awarded from their art to purchase the equipment necessary to do so.
“It kind of makes me tingle when I see my students succeed,” Markley said. “The pride that I have in those kids – I can’t even put words to it. When I think about them it makes me very emotional because they’ve found something that they’re so successful at.”