Actress Kerry Washington spends an afternoon with the Savoy Players, dancers comprised of boys and girls at at Savoy Elementary School in Washington, DC on January 22, 2013. Washington was part of a “Turnaround Arts Initiative” to improve low-performing schools by emphasizing the arts. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Some unusual speakers appeared at the final Pittsburgh school board meeting of the year — students, and they were asking for something. Arts education. In the following post,  Jessie B. Ramey,  a parent of two children in Pittsburgh public schools and a historian of working families, gender, race and U.S. social policy who teaches women’s studies and history at the University of Pittsburgh, describes the scene at the board meeting. In the original post,  which first appeared  on her Yinzercation blog, she  wrote that seniors William Grimm and Margaret Booth, co-chairs of their school’s chapter of the National Art Honor Society, approached Yinzercation, a collective of volunteer parents, students, teachers, and community members in Southwest Pennsylvania that advocates for public education, for help in learning how to make a presentation to the school board. Steering committee member Kathy Newman assisted. Here is a version of the original piece, which I am publishing with Ramey’s permission.

By Jessie B. Ramey

At the final Pittsburgh school board meeting before the winter holidays,  students told school board directors what they want for their schools. If Santa was paying attention, he didn’t have to write down very much. The students’ wish list contains only one item: arts education.

The students who spoke at the meeting attend Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 and are concerned about the impact of several years of budget cuts on arts education across the district. Two of those students, seniors William Grimm and Margaret Booth, are co-presidents of the CAPA chapter of the National Art Honor Society and through that chapter, they collected statements from other CAPA students about why the arts are important in public education.

As Grimm explained, “Recent budget cuts to the arts have had a profound impact on our district, especially CAPA. The visual artists lost their sculpture class, the instrumentalists their private lessons…it hit everyone hard.” Before presenting the statements from his fellow students, he told the board of directors:

“They are real responses from real students who know how much the arts matter. These are from students of every grade, gender, race, and background. They are the voices of the ones most affected but least heard.”

You would have to have a heart like the Grinch – three sizes too small – to not be moved by these students:

  • “Art is empowering. It gives an outlet for emotions to youth struggling to figure them out. The arts allow a freedom no other discipline can offer. Without art, I would be nowhere; and everyone deserves the right to be somewhere.” – 11th grade
  • “Cutting money towards the arts is like cutting out a child’s personality. Students aren’t at school to just do math, science, English or social studies. We are here to learn about the world and how to interact with it.” – 9th grade
  • “To deprive public schools of the accessible and thriving art programs is to completely ignore a monumental aspect of a child’s development—their creativity.” – 10th grade
  • “We need to keep the arts in schools because nothing has taught me more about myself, what I believe, and how I connect with the world around me than the arts.” – 12th grade
  • “I believe that art should be kept and funded in schools because of the expressive value and apparent lack of freedom in school otherwise. Arts give people a sense of belonging and keep many people level headed. Art means everything to us and we thrive off of it’s cultural value.” – 12th grade
  • “…when we think of nuclear fission and sending men to orbiting celestial bodies, paint brushes and piano keys don’t come to mind. However, sometimes what matters is what we don’t see. Art has had an underlying current propelling academia. Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of the human body led to research into anatomy. Philosophy and film inspired rockets to the moon. Why should we keep the arts? We should keep the arts because they provide direction to the force of math and science.” – 12th grade
  • “Art is important because it brings beauty to the world.” – 11th grade
  • “Why is this even a question?” – 12th grade

Margaret Booth began her testimony by saying:

“Shakespeare gave me the words in  fourth grade when I participated in the Shakespeare Scene And Monologue Contest with my elementary school. Frida Kahlo gave me strength in ninth grade as I admired her paintings and her story. The arts, in general, have given me the voice I have today.”

Here is the rest of what she told the school board:

I have been in the Pittsburgh Public Schools since kindergarten. If I were to pick one aspect of these past years that has influenced me most significantly as a person, I would pick the exposure I have had to art, whether it be drawing on construction paper, acting in a play, or playing a screechy version of jingle bells on the school-provided violin.

During my time at CAPA, I have met hundreds of students with similar stories about how the arts have opened opportunities and possibilities in their lives. While I know the majority here agree with me about the importance of the arts in our schools, I am here today to reiterate the message that the arts have a profound impact on students, especially young children who begin to internalize self-worth at such an early age. When I think about my own confidence building, which can be attributed to early exposure to the arts, it saddens me to think that all children will not get these opportunities soon enough. As Colfax cuts middle level choral programs and Linden is unable to offer instrumental programs until fifth grade, I see systematic potential barriers for students from lower income homes, minority students, and those with disabilities from entering a school such as CAPA.

But aside from CAPA, I believe that students everywhere need exposure to the arts sooner. There have even been notable studies showing increased achievement in STEM classes when students also participate in art. This is because the confidence the arts offer is invaluable; art is neither right nor wrong, it is a life long process of creation that trickles down into the confidence to do anything.

As budgets are planned, I would ask you to keep the imaginative quality of youth in mind. The arts give students like me a voice louder than their own. Give them an instrument or a marker or music and they will give you a masterful new idea that could change the world. The arts unlock creative thinking and new approaches to problem solving quite different from STEM programs, something our future desperately needs.

I hope the Pittsburgh Public School board and administration listen to these wise students.