Arts Builds Smarts

By Christinna Chauncey

The Importance of Providing Funding for the Arts

Our kids need to be exposed to the arts. It's as simple as that. Their futures depend up on it. 

In a society where the workforce is placing increasing emphasis on an employee's ability to create and generate ideas, it's vitally important that our children's education is one that stimulates an excitement for learning. In a statement by the former U.S. Department of Education, Secretary of Education Richard Riley said, "The American Economy is shifting from a manufacturing-driven engine to a services-driven enterprise.

If young Americans are to succeed and to contribute to what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan describes as our 'economy of ideas,' they will need an education that develops imaginative, flexible and tough-minded thinking. The arts powerfully nurture the ability to think in this manner." Riley goes on to state that "the arts teach young people how to learn by giving them the first step: the desire to learn."

Current research shows that exposure to the arts has a direct impact on the learning capabilities of children. One research endeavor in particular, Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning, has undergone extensive examination of a variety of arts programs to determine the impact of arts on a child's ability to learn. Engaging seven teams of researchers, Champions of Change discovered that children can attain higher levels of achievement through their exposure to the arts. Researcher James Catterall of the Imagination Project at UCLA, in his analysis of over 25,000 students in a database provided by the Department of Education, discovered that students participating in a number of arts programs at their school greatly outperformed "arts-poor" students in nearly every area of academia. According to ArtsEdge, which hosts Champions of Change, "Since arts participation is highly correlated with socioeconomic status, which is the most significant predictor of academic performance, this comes as little surprise." The result? The impact of high arts participation on low-income students tends to be much more significant than that of students from high-education backgrounds. Furthermore, Catterall also found clear evidence that sustained involvement in particular art forms - music and theater - are highly correlated with success in mathematics and reading.*

What does this mean for our kids? When a child is engaged in a learning environment involving the arts, whether it's a music class, a painting class, a Shakespeare program, etc., the child's creative side becomes stimulated. No longer is the child focused on finding the "right answer" to a posed question. Rather, the child is encouraged to look inside his or herself for the "answers." In essence, this is where art flourishes - in the creative mind of the artist. The child develops a natural desire to participate, examine, and learn. The child discovers his or her unique artistic ability and is given the opportunity to display such talent for others. The result is a sense of accomplishment, which spills over into other areas of learning. According to Champions of Change researchers, "When well taught, the arts provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies. The learning experiences are real and meaningful for them." 

In the acclaimed feature film Music of the Heart, Meryl Streep portrays real-life arts education heroine Roberta Guaspari, who overcame personal circumstances to establish a violin program at an inner-city school in East Harlem. Despite the skepticism of the kids, parents, and principal of the school, Guspari taught with a passion that infected her students and led them on a journey of making beautiful, sophisticated music. Despite their circumstances, Guspari's disadvantaged, inner-city students proved to be dedicated, disciplined and talented young musicians - and they competed with one another for a spot in Guspari's class. Ten years later, however, due to budget cuts, the school board canceled funding for Guspari's program. But Roberta Guspari fought back and her battle is one that is unfortunately all too common in present-day arts education funding.

According to Streep, "We made noise with this picture...but it hasn't helped schools in Connecticut where I live. They're cutting music programs...I think we're doing a good thing with this picture. It's corroborated by every single study that talks about kids learning that music enhances discipline and focus, and expands out into all different branches of academic excellence, and it makes them feel good." 

Co-star Gloria Estephan agrees, "[Arts] lets kids come out of their shell, it gives them opportunities to compete and express themselves creatively...and at the same time, a valuable learning experience." Angela Bassett, who co-stars in the film as the school principal adds, "Studies have shown that music and art increases [a child's] IQ, their ability. It's something that should be studied and given importance to." 

The theatrical release of Music of the Heart last year certainly increased awareness of the need for arts education in public schools. But the road for arts education funding is long and paved with the potholes of legislative red tape.

In Los Angeles, one organization has taken matters into their own hands. P.S. Arts - a non-profit organization is dedicated to restoring arts education to public schools by expending community support. P.S. Arts was founded by Paul Cummins, Ph.D., the Executive Director of the New Visions Foundation and the President of Crossroads School, a private institution located in Santa Monica, California, where there is enough private funding to place a high importance upon the arts. Having observed first-hand the benefit his students received from being exposed to the arts at Crossroads, Cummins was shocked to discover the dramatic lack of funding for the arts in the public school system. He decided to take action and created P.S. Arts, which is making a difference one school at a time. So far seven schools in Los Angeles County have benefited from the work of P.S. Arts receiving enough monies to provide arts instruction despite the lack of funding due to budget cuts by the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

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