I grew up singing nearly every day in school. I thrived on the magic of harmony and channeled my emotions onstage in drama class. So when I discovered that our soon-to-be-kindergartener’s neighborhood school lacked any music, drama, or art program, I panicked.
I then attended a community education open house, where I discovered the K–8 charter school where we now send our children—in large part because of its arts curriculum.
Arts education provides students with a host of proven benefits, from higher self-esteem to higher graduation rates. We found a school that would offer this and more to our children through its arts curriculum.
What if, after looking at education fairs and online sites, you’re still in search of a school with an arts program? You can find ways to create or help save a program in your community. Here are three actionable steps you can take to initiate and maintain a quality school arts program.
1. Show proof that parents and students really care. Whether parents want to start or maintain a school arts program, numbers are key. Kevin Heath, Operations Manager at the Gilroy Arts Alliance/Gilroy Center for the Arts, emphasizes the importance of having the “support of other parents, arts patrons, or other people in the community and starting a dialogue with all of those people before you go to the school board. The larger the numbers, the more they listen."
If you are trying to create or save an arts program, it’s sometimes a tactical decision whether to approach the principal or the school board first. In one situation, Heath says, the parents rallied and went to the school board because the principal was trying to cut an arts program. In other situations, however, the principal can be a strong ally in starting a new program or maintaining one for which the school board is considering cutting funding.
Theater teacher Beth Bloom Ocheskey recommends that parents contact both the school administration and the legislature to advocate for arts programs in their children’s schools. Ocheskey, also president of the Kansas City Cappies, says, “Any time a parent speaks up, that speaks to the administration. When the local legislature hears, ‘We want this in our schools,’ we can try to get funding." Also, particularly with a new program, it’s important to “show a buy-in from kids"— that is, to have kids demonstrate that they care about the arts by sharing testimonials, letters, or petitions.
2. Bring research to support your claims. Louisville parents successfully obtained funds to keep a performing arts magnet school open by presenting the district with NEA studies “about children who are in arts programs — the percentage who are less likely to go to prison, the percentage who are more likely to go to college," reports Ashlie Stevens, former contributing arts writer at an NPR affiliate.
3. Suggest a STEAM curriculum. Consider approaching schools about employing a STEM(science, technology, engineering, arts + design, and math) curriculum, which integrates the arts into the other subjects and fosters creativity, critical thinking, and innovation and results in an increase in test scores.
According to Josh Russell, Executive Vice President of the nonprofit arts organization Silicon Valley Creates (SVC), the question is no longer, “‘Should we have an arts program?’ but rather, ‘How do we integrate the arts into the learning that is already happening? How can we use music to teach math?’" As Russell characterizes this change in perspective, “It’s a shift in the conversation."
Certain critical issues should be addressed once the school has agreed to begin or continue an arts program. Qualified teachers, a well-developed curriculum, and sufficient funding, space, and materials are top priorities, according to Heath.
“Teaching arts to children requires a special set of skills as well as] knowledge, technique, and the spirit of the creative process," says Michelle Brode, chair of the Art Docent Program at Grand Ridge Elementary School in Issaquah, Washington.
“It’s absolutely a crime to have well-meaning parent volunteers teaching art," she says, noting she is a “well-meaning parent volunteer" herself. After all, Brode has only a limited background in art and teaching. To create a well-rounded program for kids, Brode’s district hired an arts educator to develop curriculum lesson plans. Parent-art docents, in turn, use the prepared curriculum to teach applied art.
In San Francisco, the children of freelance writer Lydia Lee learn from a parent-taught program called Art in Action, featured in STEAM magazine as a method for nurturing Renaissance children.
Heath emphasizes the importance of balancing curricular rigor with creativity. “A little structure and a little free-flow work really well," Heath says. “A good balance is key in any arts program for kids."
Once you’ve got theoretical buy-in, you’ll also need to secure actual buy-in, in the form of funding. Here are four steps you can take to ensure that your child’s arts program is well-supported.
1. Look for relevant grants. “Parents should offer to take responsibility for funding whenever possible," Ocheskey says, because teachers are usually untrained in grant writing and other means to obtain funds. Numerous grants are available for school arts programs, and many are discoverable via online grant search engines.
Offering seminars in grant writing for parents, teachers, and other members of the community, SVC aims to “increase the overall capacity of our creative ecosystem," says Russell. The nonprofit organization also pays for educational resources, such as school field trips, and administers mini-grants for teachers.
2. Reach out to organizations and donors. Heath encourages parents not to overlook local businesses and foundations like Rotary clubs, Elks lodges, and large universities with mentoring programs or in-kind donations of instruction hours or supplies.
3. Host fundraising events. Many schools host annual parents’ nights out — sometimes including live or silent auctions — carnivals, or bake sales to raise funds for arts programs. At Paradise Elementary, Home and School Association (HSA) Chairperson Karen Swank-Fitch helps students raise funds by seeking sponsors for jog-a-thons and spell-a-thons. In New York City, several public schools raise funds through a culinary festival, The Taste of Tribeca.
4. Partner with Parent-School Organizations. The PTSA funds the arts program at Grand Ridge Elementary School through dues, fundraisers, and straight donations. “It’s their number-one priority," Brode says. Volunteers also place stickers on art projects to create community awareness about the program.
After-school programs can provide a lower-cost back-up plan for providing arts education, especially for parents with busy work schedules and complex child-care arrangements.
With the current curriculum constraints, Russell says, “It’s hard to get anything integrated into the school day." In this vein, SVC provides after-school Adobe storytelling programs for teens.
Brode implores parents to develop good relationships with the staff and administration. “Don’t go over time limits, because we serve at the pleasure of the teachers," she says. Seek out the teachers as resources, and “ask them how we can tweak the lessons." As Brode points out, a cooperative attitude will achieve more than a hostile one.
Most importantly, Heath says, “Never give up. You get a lot of 'nos,' but sooner or later you’re bound to get a 'yes.' The kids are worth it."
Art Education Featured in Steam Education Magazine. Retrieved from Steam Education Magazine.
Artsedconnect. Retrieved from the Artsedconnect Website.
Art in Action. Retrieved from the Art in Action Website.
Ashlie Stevens, former contributing arts writer at WFPL News, Louisville’s NPR station, direct messaging, June 2, 2015.
Beth Bloom Ocheskey. Theater teacher at DeLaSalle Education Center, President Kansas City Cappies, telephone, June 1, 2015.
Grant Wrangler. Retrieved from the Grant Wrangler Website.
Josh Russell, Vice President, Silicon Valley Creates, telephone, June 4, 2015.
Karen Swank-Fitch, Chairperson HSA, Paradise Elementary School, telephone, May 5, 2015.
Kevin Heath, Operations Manager, Gilroy Arts Alliance/Gilroy Center for the Arts, telephone, June 3, 2015.
Lydia Lee, parent and freelance writer, self-employed, social media, May 8, 2015.
Michelle Brode, chair of the Art Docent Program, Grand Ridge Elementary School, Issaquah, Washington, telephone, May 13, 2015.
NEA Studies Associates the Arts with Higher Student Achievement (June 14 2012). Retrieved from WFPL.
Silicon Valley Creates. Retrieved from the Silicon Valley Creates Website.
Take Action (2015). Retrieved from Stem to Steam.