WP Magazine, the Education Issue: After years of crouching, arts ed is raising its hand again

February 21, 2013

Dancer Damian Woetzel and cellist Yo-Yo Ma hold an arts workshop, set up by the Washington Performing Arts Society, at the District’s Savoy Elementary School in Anacostia.
(Bill O’Leary)

In a second-floor classroom in an Anacostia elementary school, the pupils are about to be exposed to Great Art: The cellist Yo-Yo Ma is bringing in his Stradivarius. The kids have been told how important Yo-Yo Ma is, and one wall is lined with press photographers and TV cameras.

Two kids are wandering around on stilts, costumed as masked scarecrow-like monsters, like unexplained extras in a European art film, their presence somehow part of the whole artistic process. The other children, lined up in ragged but orderly formation, perform the “daily do” — “do” as in do-re-mi, unison scale patterns that have become part of their routine in a new, arts- ­focused curriculum.

And then they wait. Everyone is fully prepared for art to happen, but Ma has yet to make his entrance. But that’s fine. As many schools are learning these days, art can take a while to pay off.

***


Actress Kerry Washington, right, with dancers at Savoy Elementary, which she “adopted.”
(Marvin Joseph)

Savoy Elementary is one of eight in the country earmarked by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as a “turnaround” school — one in dire need of help. For three years, each of the eight is “adopted” by a well-known artist (in Savoy’s case, the actress Kerry Washington) and receives a tremendous funding boost to institute arts and other programs ($14.7 million for the eight). That money comes from a range of sources, and about $2 million of it goes to the arts alone.

This is based on a new belief — after years of emphasis on standardized testing — in the power of the arts. Today, more and more policymakers think it is the arts, after all, that can motivate kids, engage them and help them develop 21st-century skills such as teamwork and innovative thinking — in sum, be the key to their salvation.

The children at Savoy, accordingly, are being bombarded with arts. Every kid in the third, fourth and fifth grades gets 45 minutes a day of music and movement training in addition to regular arts classes. The school is phasing in the Suzuki method, an early-childhood music teaching program, next year. Washington takes a lively interest in “her” school, holding Skype chats. Then there are special visitors, such as Ma — who finally makes his entrance and is promptly enveloped in handshaking and introductions to the adults while the cameras click. The kids are still waiting.

Ma’s visit, however, isn’t part of the Turnaround Arts initiative. It has been set up by the Washington Performing Arts Society. WPAS’s main activity is presenting concerts, and the Kennedy Center audience that heard Ma play the previous evening may not have realized that WPAS has a serious educational mandate as well, reaching 48,000 kids a year. Its education funding has tripled in 10 years, to a third of its budget.

An awful lot of arts organizations are putting an awful lot of muscle into education these days. Many are looking for ways to combat their own declining trends. Orchestras are a prime example: They’re having trouble filling seats, and they’re struggling with a stereotype that casts them as elitist and boring. Many blame the decline in arts education: If kids learned more about music, they’d grow up to buy tickets!

Education, furthermore, helps arts organizations bring in new donors. “Money for education is coming from people who might not otherwise have an interest in giving,” says Carol Bogash, vice president for education (a new post) at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which earmarks $2 million of its $27 million annual operating budget for education.

According to a survey by the League of American Orchestras, orchestras’ educational activities tripled between 1990 and 2010.

Is this a sign that arts organizations may be finding a new role as educational institutions? Or is it just a sign that these organizations, eager to prove their relevance, are jumping on a bandwagon that’s already moving? Many small arts organizations are investing larger percentages of their budgets in education — Prince George’s Philharmonic devotes nearly a quarter of its modest $100,000 operating budget. The question is whether such efforts are enough to have an effect.

Ma finally begins playing his cello — with the Savoy kids, not for them. Together with Damian Woetzel, the ballet-dancer-turned-arts-activist, he follows a template they have used in other schools: Four chosen kids declaim things that make them unique, while Ma plays cello riffs under and between the words.

Ma himself represents several interests: providing a role model for the children, a sign of community, national concern for a struggling school and a way for WPAS to show its involvement. But he also represents, in this classroom, a rather vague definition of “art,” and it’s hard to tell exactly what this performance adds up to.

Patrick Pope, who took over as Savoy principal in 2011, turns to the one available yardstick: test scores.

“The three years before I got here, scores declined every single year,” he says. This year, after the start of the arts immersion program, “they stopped declining.”

***

If you’ve read the news in the past decade, you may think there is hardly any arts education left. Not everyone concurs.

“The data doesn’t show what most people think,” says Michael A. Butera, executive director and CEO of the National Association for Music Education, which has 75,000 members. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 94 percent of elementary schools offered music education in the 2009-10 school year. “Of all arts subjects,” Butera says, “music is the one most frequently provided for.”

In D.C. Public Schools, music education is even increasing. “In 2006, we had about 65 percent of our schools able to offer music in some form or fashion,” says Ben Hall, curriculum manager for music. “Fast-forward to today, we’re at about 98 percent. It’s pretty amazing.”

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Taufeeq Montgomery draws as part of the Corcoran ArtReach program.
(Matt McClain)

Yet other studies paint a different picture. “Sixty percent of schools say they’ve cut arts education in the last 10 years,” says Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

“The reason we don’t get a full picture is there is no national mechanism for gathering this information,” Goslins says. Furthermore, “there isn’t a clean standard of what arts education looks like in a school. Some schools say, ‘Yes, we have two assemblies a year. …’ Others, ‘We have three full-time teachers and a choir in fifth grade.’ Both schools would say, ‘Yes, we have [arts education].’ ”

In general, though, there seems to be less of it, and the gap has widened between high-poverty schools and lower-poverty ones. “It’s an incontrovertible fact that the kids who need it the most are getting it least,” Goslins says.

If the pendulum is swinging back toward a renewed emphasis on arts education, it’s partly because No Child Left Behind hasn’t exactly solved the country’s educational problems, says Savoy’s principal. “Has that focus [on reading test scores] really paid off?” Pope asks. “Where’s that payoff? Have you seen it?”

Pope implemented a still-thriving arts program during his turnaround at Georgetown’s Rose L. Hardy Middle School, where he was principal until 2010. Now he’s trying to do the same thing at Savoy, where fewer than one-fifth of students are reading or doing math at grade level.

When he arrived in 2011, “I’d never seen a sadder group of children,” he says. “I wondered why I would come to school if I was this 8-year-old. What is here for me? I’m told I don’t read well, so I get a lot of reading classes. We don’t seem to spend much time on the fundamentals of motivating children. Children have to feel school is a successful place. I know that the arts can motivate focus and provide discipline for kids. That’s where I start.”

***

The biggest single school arts program in Baltimore isn’t run by the school system. It was created by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

OrchKids began five years ago with a handful of inner-city first-graders and $100,000 out of conductor Marin Alsop’s pocket. The kids were given instruments, instruction and a structured before- and after-school music program of up to 28 hours a week.

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Asia Palmer, 11, left, and Nikya Monroe, 10, practice at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School in Baltimore, part of the OrchKids program.
(Marvin Joseph)

The inspiration was El Sistema, the Venezuelan training program that has brought kids out of the barrios and onto the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and Vienna’s Musikverein. In the classical music world, El Sistema has become a byword for all the truths held dear: This music makes kids smarter, better citizens, saves their lives, gives them a purpose.

According to the League of American Orchestras, 15 American orchestras now have programs modeled on El Sistema and seven others have them in development. Baltimore’s OrchKids reaches 600 students in four schools and is soon to expand to two more.

“One of our students and I are going to Carnegie Hall tomorrow to play a concert,” says Dan Trahey, the program’s perhaps visionary director. “I’ve got a clarinetist Marin is saying is going to be one of the great conductors.”

“It’s not rocket science,” he adds. “We’re putting kids in musical situations for 30 hours a week. They’re going to be able to do something.”

An irony, he points out, is that the founders of the Venezuelan program based it on the model they saw in public schools throughout America.

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Violinist Janet Melnicoff-Brown with OrchKids students, from left, Taylor McFadden, 9, Nickea Johnson, 8, and Laila Petty, 8, at Lockerman-Bundy.
(Marvin Joseph)

OrchKids, with an annual operating budget of $1.14 million, is just one of the BSO’s educational programs, which carry a total price tag of $2 million, 7 percent of the orchestra’s budget. The orchestra has just launched OrchLab near its second home, the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, designed in close consultation with the Montgomery County school system, sending musicians into schools that already have music programs for extra coaching. As of last fall, the BSO also has three youth orchestras.

The BSO is by no means alone in expanding its educational offerings. According to Judith Kurnick, a spokesman for the League of American Orchestras, education activities now account for 60 percent of all orchestral presentations.

***

Education and policymaking are offering a new niche to institutions that have heard for too long that they’re going the way of the dinosaurs.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced a comprehensive arts education plan to reach every child, advised by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Lyric Opera.

In Baltimore, city leaders are sitting down with arts groups to work out a plan for improving arts education — an initiative overseen by the Kennedy Center, which has started similar programs in nine other cities under the rubric “Any Given Child.”

Any Given Child is not only run by an arts organization, its goal is to integrate the efforts of local arts organizations within a community’s education system for maximum effect.

According to Darrell Ayers, the center’s vice president for education, the program began when Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser kept noticing in his travels that there were lots of individual educational efforts, but “no one’s looking across the arts landscape to see what’s going on with everything.”

Any Given Child starts by surveying resources and needs, then figures out, Ayers says, “how do we distribute what’s there, and are there appropriate Kennedy Center resources that can be layered on.” The Kennedy Center funds its own involvement, but does not provide funding. “Coming from Washington,” Ayers says dryly, “we always have to say, ‘We’re not bringing money, but we’re not looking for money.’ ”

The Kennedy Center has a mandate to foster arts education; not every arts organization does, yet Any Given Child is symptomatic of artists’ increasing roles.

Ma, for instance, was involved in the discussions in Chicago. “Twenty years ago,” Ma said in a call, “I don’t think I would have been involved in … showing up at meetings where cultural policy or educational policy is being discussed.” But, he added, “If Renee [Fleming, the soprano], Damian [Woetzel] or me showing up someplace can help move something forward a notch, hey, that’s the right thing to do.”

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Yo-Ya Ma says that if participating in meetings about cultural or educational   policy “can help move things forward a notch, hey, that’s the right thing to do.”
(Bill O’Leary)

Not every artist is happy about this expanded role. Indeed, it has affected recent labor disputes. In Detroit, management wanted the contract to stipulate that educational activities were part of the musicians’ job descriptions. Many orchestral musicians already participated, but some were uneasy to have such activities mandated.

Likewise, full-time teachers can be uneasy when schools rely heavily on outside teaching artists. “While it is good that major symphonies engage in these kind of programs,” says Butera of the National Association for Music Education, “… our position is that they cannot replace the regular music program.”

Arts organizations are sensitive to the issue. More than 240 orchestras have signed a statement of common cause indicating that, however active they are with educational programs, they don’t seek to replace full-time arts teachers.

The schools’ needs can become overwhelming to the arts institutions. In Washington, an organization called the DC Collaborative, founded by the Kennedy Center and now an independent nonprofit, matches schools and arts organizations. Every semester, it puts out a catalogue of offerings from upward of 45 arts organizations. Once a school has pledged its involvement, its teachers can select programs from Arena Stage, the Corcoran, the National Portrait Gallery, the Washington Ballet and dozens of others.

Demand is huge: The collaborative has had to impose ticket limits for individual schools. It reaches 30,000 children a year, nearly half of D.C. Public Schools’ students. “We could reach 100 percent …if we had the money,” says the group’s executive director, Louise Kennelly.

The William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts has put some of its arts programs entirely in the hands of outside arts organizations: The National Philharmonic runs its music program, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company is in charge of its drama.

Although the STC is exceptionally committed to arts education — earmarking $1 million of its $18 million budget and running 26 educational programs, some extending over a whole semester — it is finding it a tall order to provide it full time. “I don’t think that is a model that we want to pursue all of the time,” says Vanessa Hope, the company’s school programs manager. “We don’t feel it’s our job to replace full-time teachers in the schools.”

And there’s this: Once you get into daily teaching, you take a step away from your primary mandate — creating art.

***

So what, exactly, are the children learning? “Arts education” is a wonderfully imprecise term. It holds a vague and potent promise, visions of children reveling in self-expression. But in practice, as many of us remember, it involves crayon outlines of your hands, macaroni collages, plastic recorders, unison renditions of songs from “Annie.”

Those who hail it as a panacea may be doomed to disappointment. It’s true that without exposure to the arts, it’s difficult to develop an interest in them. But it’s also true that many of the people who had, say, music education back in the 1960s and 1970s are the same people who are not going to orchestra concerts today. Some arts organizations will have to confront the fact that their audiences are declining because of an irrevocable shift in the culture, rather than simply a lack of education.

There’s plenty of room for arts organizations to do good in arts education. The fact is, there is no one model of “arts education” that works. A 2011 report by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, “Reinvesting in Arts Education,” says it “involves a wide array of organizations, school and state officials whose roles and initiative vary from place to place.”

“I think it’s going to be this beautiful hot mess of programs that are doing it,” says OrchKids’s Trahey, speaking of El Sistema-inspired programs.

Arts education has always depended on inspiration from the one dedicated teacher, the one conductor who turned a roomful of kids onto Beethoven — things impossible to standardize.

Ma’s visit to Savoy Elementary culminated in a performance in the gym in which Ma and the chosen children performed their piece in front of the whole school. Ma then played Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” and the students performed for him a work that to 8- and 9-year-olds seemed no less classic, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — in which the kids on stilts finally had their role.


Students on stilts wait for their turn to participate in an arts workshop at Savoy Elementary.
(Bill O’Leary)

As the rest of the students sat watching, fidgeting slightly, moving when told, you couldn’t help wondering what message they were getting about the importance of art. But the benefits are tangible, if not always as romantic as people might think.

“I originally thought of … artists’ participation as frosting on the cake,” says the President’s Committee’s Goslins, “but I’m shifting my viewpoint. In really depressed schools like these, always told that the only thing you were good at was failing, when you bring these artists into the schools, what they do for school identity and for the morale of the whole community is really quite profound.”

And the staff at Savoy was equally pragmatic.“For these kids, it was a win-win,” said Anthony Jones, one of the three teaching artists leading Savoy’s immersion program. “Waiting around, four of them chosen [to perform]; the other kids had to watch. Being proud for other people.

“If you can sit there for two hours and focus on something else, then you can sit at that math homework.”

Art isn’t always easy, or fun, or accessible. Sometimes it is about slogging along and getting a job done. Sometimes it makes for a nice change from routine. Sometimes it awakens a sense of possibilities, and if the actual experience doesn’t live up to that — if Great Art doesn’t come to your school — making a space for it to happen may prove, in the long run, the more valuable experience.

Anne Midgette is a Washington Post staff writer. Staff member Daniele Seiss contributed reporting to this article.

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Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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