Facebook Twitter

Voices: 10 reasons we need better arts in DPS

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, makes a personal and professional plea for higher quality and more comprehensive arts education in Denver Public Schools.

For far too long, we education reformers have ignored quality arts education in public schools. We correctly felt there was a crisis with reading, writing and math in too many of our schools. It’s the right focus but sometimes this has been has been misinterpreted to mean that other essential disciplines like art, science and history were less important.

I believe it’s critical to advocate for a liberal arts education. There is no reason to believe that there has or should be trade-offs. The best schools are focused on a quality education by building strong skills in reading, writing and math while they also build understanding in the arts and sciences.

Not only do we make a huge political mistake by alienating those who believe the arts to be important, but if we are serious about providing access to opportunity, lifelong learning and a ticket out of poverty, we must include the arts.

We need to do a better job of supporting quality arts while still pushing for more effective programs that support reading, writing and math. Students of all backgrounds need access to high-quality arts education. All families and students should have the ability to choose a school that best fits their needs, including high-quality schools that provide rich art programing.

So why the arts? Check out the draft report from the A+ Denver Task Force on quality arts education in Denver for more substance. But for now, here are my top 10 reasons for why we need more quality arts programs and schools:

Top 10 reasons for more quality school arts programs

  1. Art feeds the soul. The arts enrich our lives with meaning, beauty, passion, joy and ideas. Art reflects our values, aesthetics and purpose. Art is one of the rare subjects taught in school that can be carried throughout one’s life regardless of what one does for work.
  2. All great societies and cultures use art to express their history, values, beliefs and visions. The need and desire for artistic representation and expression date back to our origins.
  3. The study of art fosters habits of discipline and focus. To learn to sculpt, sing, paint and dance requires dedication and practice while learning to give and take criticism to improve a craft.
  4. Creating art supports problem-solving, creative thought and critique like no other discipline.  It requires an integration of many disciplines, and the application of the knowledge and skills in performance and in the creation of an object.
  5. Art programming keeps many students engaged in learning and coming to school.  Ask a student what excites them about school and art will often be high or highest on the list for many students.
  6. Performances and sharing creativity can build confidence, while helpful critiques by peers and mentors generate learning and nurture a sense of humility.
  7. Studying different forms of art fosters learning in many other fields. For example, music can support math while art can connect to reading, writing and other social sciences. Nearly all of the Nobel Laureates practice some sort of art outside their field whether it is painting or playing an instrument.
  8. No other academic discipline integrates the mind and body. All forms of art require attention to the mind and body.  The Greeks and many others were on to this thousands of years ago.
  9. Study of art in a school can lead to the development of a physical space and a school culture that fosters learning with thoughtfully-placed student work and regular performances. Some of the best public and private schools have classrooms and halls reflecting the work and mission of a school through student art.
  10. Art literally saves lives, and enriches all of ours.  Art can be a vehicle for students and adults to express themselves in ways that are impossible through other means. My mother learned to paint in high school. She went on to get an MFA and become a painter. Her work not only was of great benefit to her community but also was a life preserver. She suffered from depression and her art (and therapy) helped get her through the worst times.  We know that art works for many in this same way.

There are, of course, many other important reasons to support quality arts education, including the impact it will have on Denver and America’s long-term economic development. The beautiful and useful Apple machines that I’m writing this post with would not have been possible without their designers having had an arts-rich education. This is true and becomes increasingly important as our world develops faster and becomes even flatter. Innovation and creativity with effective design habits are the key to our economic future.

We found in our research about Denver’s arts education that there are pockets of greatness in Denver but far too few students – especially low-income – have access to high-quality arts education. Some of the wonderful arts programs in DPS include a few Mariachi programs, jazz at East High School and one of the best magnet schools in the state, Denver School of the Arts.  The challenge is that there are too few, and most are not designed to capture student interest in the elementary years and support their growth into high school.

Did you know that while DSA is a Denver public school, there were no in-district Denver students who qualified to be in the orchestra program?  Gaps in DPS arts education fail to prepare students to reach DSA standards without significant parent or family investment. Seventy-three percent of Denver’s students are low-income, and paying for private tutors to prepare candidates for auditions and continue lessons once accepted is an incredible financial burden.

A+ Denver believes this can change with appropriate levels of resources and support from Denver voters, the schools and the many arts institutions in Denver. New programs like El Sistema at Garden Place Academy are designed to support many more students – in this case, mostly low-income Latino students – in playing a string instrument. But we believe much more can be done.

What do you think?

A+ Denver is soliciting feedback on how we can improve quality arts in Denver. Please read our report and let us know what should be done. Here are questions to consider:

  • Who should take the lead on quality arts education in Denver? How should they do it?
  • What needs to be done in DPS to improve the overall quality and access to arts programs for DPS students, especially low-income students? How should we measure quality and access?
  • What responsibilities do our community arts institutions, the City of Denver and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District have to ensure quality arts for Denver kids? What should they do?

We know we need more resources for the arts, but we also know we need to be more creative in how we support more high-quality arts. Send your ideas to lauren@aplusdenver.org.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.