The Arts Are a Master Key

Posted by Kari Hanson, Jun 01, 2016 0 comments

“The arts are everything. They are like a master key.”

I recently had an opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the brilliant high school-aged leaders of the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council (SSAC). I was one of four presenters discussing city-wide community/collective impact initiatives that are focused on improving outcomes for students. We presented about the mission and vision of our organizations and our own personal backgrounds, but the highlight was when the students presented to us about their “fires” – the issues or injustices they are attempting to tackle through their capstone projects over the course of the next couple of years.

Some common threads were woven through their presentations, including: inequities in education (Why are some schools more well-resourced than others?); lack of context for learning and opportunities to succeed in multiple ways (Why does student success in one subject area, such as math, define success as a student overall?); and engagement of student voice (Why are decisions about what and how students are learning made without student input?).

As an arts education advocate, my ears perked up when one group of students started talking about their capstone project that is focused on bringing more arts into the high school experience. The students’ idea is that the arts build in opportunities to explore learning and success in new ways, allow them to express themselves and engage in critical exchanges, and that students, families, and school staff can use tools learned through the arts to expose and fight against inequities in education – tools such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem solving.

I asked these students, “HOW!? – How do we do this?” I guess it is still a little early in their capstone project development process, so they weren’t quite sure yet! But we talked about some research, models, and local efforts that they could tap into as they develop their plans.

This brainstorming made me particularly excited to report to the group that Milwaukee was recently selected as a new Turnaround Arts community! This asset-based, arts infusion/integration school reform model, designed as a response to the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities report: “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools,” has shown success in improving school climate, student achievement, and parent engagement at some of the most challenged K-8 schools across the nation; demonstrating the power of arts education to tackle some of the big issues they are thinking about.

Though the Turnaround Arts initiative is focused on K-8 schools, I believe our SSAC arts education advocates can look at the model and learn from the positive impacts it has on schools and students. My recommendation, as Milwaukee embarks upon the Turnaround Arts initiative, is that the SSAC arts education advocates serve as student advisors for the four Turnaround Arts schools as well as a strategy team that can examine ways to replicate the model in other schools and at the high school level.

As our conversation drew to a close, one of the SSAC arts education advocates said to me, “The arts are everything. They are like a master key.” It is exciting to know that the idea that the arts can serve as an equalizer and spring board for growth and improvement in our schools is one that is on the minds of many, from researchers to administrators, from teachers to families, and especially students! I feel my work is affirmed and strengthened by the SSAC arts education advocates and that their voice will be very powerful in the movement to increase access to the transformative power of arts education for all students in Milwaukee.

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