White House Gathers Arts 'Champions of Change'

Posted by Robert Lynch, Jul 21, 2011 0 comments

On July 19, I attended a productive meeting at the White House Executive Office Building. The event, coordinated by the President’ Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the White House Office of Public Engagement, was called Champions for Change: Winning the Future Across America.

Some dozen Champions were on hand to react and provide good local examples of how arts interventions made positive change and could contribute to making the case for advancing arts education in America.

Amy Rasmussen, executive director of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education observed that there was a faster rate of acceleration and improvement in all areas for children when they had the arts as a key part of their learning experience.

Ramon Gonzalez, the founding principal of Middle School 223-The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the South Bronx, discussed how the arts engaged students in his school.

His school recognizes and engages all the students as artists and makes the arts a core part of their everyday school life even though the focus of the school is on finance and technology. The result was a 93 percent increase in attendance and a greatly improved learning environment. In this school, which was started in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City when it was created, there has been not even a single fight in the last two years.

Benefits of arts education turn out to be quite unexpectedly practical, too.

For example Robbie Owen, principal of Rockwell Elementary School in Spanish Fort, AL, pointed out how arts education is good for real estate values. Not only does his school have an excellent reputation, but it also is known for providing its students with a fun learning environment because the arts are a key part of the day. His students have fun while they learn! As a result, Owen noted that people literally want to move to where his school is located because of the arts, thereby driving up property values in the Rockwell school district substantially.

Scott Dawson, the community outreach and education director for the Clark State Community College Performing Arts Center in Springfield, OH, talked about the value of a positive arts experience to at-risk youth. His work with Project Jericho breaks the status quo by facilitating arts programming across the Clark County community and in the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center, reducing recidivism and saving the state millions of dollars.

Advocacy was on people's minds as well. Christine Harrison, principal of Millwood Arts Academy and Freshman Academy in Oklahoma City, OK, credits the partnership with the Oklahoma A+ Schools network and its support as a crucial piece of her school’s success. She said that to her dismay, for many years and with great effort, her school was not able to meet the standards they sought; but, after experimenting with three classes where art became a key activity she became an advocate demanding that the arts be funded and be fully part of the school's programs.

Almost all participants felt that partnerships were essential.

Joan Katz-Napoli made the case for how community arts resources can be a huge help as with the Cleveland Orchestra. Fourteen years ago, the orchestra became one of the first in the country to implement an arts integration program. Learning Through Music uses music to support learning across K-5 curriculum, and has recently established a Musical Neighborhoods program in partnership with local Head Start sites, using music to build school readiness skills.

Gigi Antoni, president and CEO of Big Thought in Dallas, TX, illustrated the value of partnerships such as Thriving Minds , a system of programs that joins the city of Dallas, the Dallas Independent School District, and more than 100 other organizations, with Big Thought as managing partner.

Ideas for next steps included redoubling focus on advocacy efforts aimed at all levels of government including local, state and federal elected leaders; national visibility campaigns; involving the business community more deeply; and recognizing that while the benefits of a stronger arts presence are advantageous for all 95,000 public schools in America, a critical need is in the 1600 high schools responsible for the majority of the dropouts.

Arts education can make a difference everywhere as all the Champions of Change illustrated, but it can also make a critical difference in the lives of those most at risk.

*Editors Note: Stay tuned for more information about these Champions of Change next week on ARTSblog.

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