This is the first of a three-part series discussing the importance and impacts of educating the community’s youth in the arts.
- By Connie Voight
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It’s been a hot topic for decades: Is an education in the arts valuable and beneficial to a child? A child’s art class is more than crayon scribblings that will one day end up on the side of your refrigerator.
“Good arts education is not about the product,” says Jamie Kasper, director of the Arts Education Partnership and a former music teacher. “It is about the process of learning.”
What does an arts education do for a child? What impact does studying and being involved in the arts have on students? How can we assure that every student in Mississippi (and beyond) is exposed to the arts as a part of their K-12 public school curriculum?
For some students, the impact of an arts program may go unnoticed for years; some may never associate what they learned with their career(s). There are many students, however, that are acutely aware of the impact their art classes continue to have in their everyday lives.
Art education doesn’t just impact students. Katie An Siegel’s career path began when she was a freshman in high school. She took a stagecraft class because she didn’t think she could sing or act. She excelled in the class, enjoying every minute of it and learning more than she thought possible. She quickly became immersed in the after-school program, eventually becoming an award-winning student stage manager.
Siegel, now a professional stage manager, recounts, “One Saturday morning during the run of our fall show, my father passed away unexpectedly. That night, I went to the theatre [I was doing costumes] because I didn’t know what else to do. In the months that followed, the theatre became my safe space and my escape from everything that was hard in my life.” After a heartfelt hug in the costume shop, her teacher, Bay St. Louis resident Connie Voight, let the sophomore know that it was okay if she’d rather be at home with her family. Katie An looked at her teacher and said, “My dad would want me to be here; this is my family, too.”
It was a defining moment for both teacher and student. “Through this experience,” Katie An states, “I realized that I belonged in this industry.” Summing up this emotional time, Voight went on to say, “Although I always knew I wanted to be a theatre teacher and I’d had many career-affirming experiences along the way, this one touched my heart. Almost a dozen years later, I remember every word of that conversation.”
If you talk with an art teacher, a student of the arts, or a parent of such a student, you’ll hear similar stories of young people carving out places in the world while using past art experiences to imprint memories on those around them. Teachers will share tales of failure, hardship, happiness, and mostly success. It’s easy to find stories about students who struggled in “core” subjects, or the kid who couldn’t settle down and focus in class. These struggling, sometimes wayward students don’t just succeed in the arts – they often shine brighter than other students. The troublemaker becomes a leader in his technical theatre class, or the child who can’t focus on a math test spends hours designing and molding clay sculptures.
Steven House, head of scenic design at Western Illinois University, recounts how he became involved in the arts during his sophomore year, “I was sitting under a colonnade at school waiting for my mother to pick me up, and the drama teacher stopped to talk to me.” Steven had never met this teacher but what she asked him literally changed his life. She asked him if he had any free time that weekend. She needed someone to run the sound equipment, because the student who had signed up was now going to the Iron Bowl. Since then, House has always been working on a show. Steven went on to say, “The next show got me into scenery which is where I really found my calling.” A chance meeting by an empathetic teacher exposed this young man to a world he’d previously known nothing about and set him on a career path he never knew existed.
What becomes of all the kids that are exposed to the arts at an early age? Do they continue to study or be involved in the arts into adulthood? Do they become artists? And what happens to those children that receive no arts education? Brian Kisida, a professor at the University of Missouri, says, “…the arts are a kind of ‘secret sauce’ in keeping young students interested and involved in school, particularly as schools try to lead a revival after years of lost, delayed, or incomplete learning.” He added, “Arts instruction shouldn’t be cast aside in favor of core subjects like math and science.”
A study conducted by Kisida and DH Bowen on behalf of Boston’s EdVestors Coalition found that participants in Boston Public Schools’ Arts Expansion Initiative were less likely to be absent from school and were more engaged with their studies. Parents also reported that they had a higher level of engagement with their child’s education. Jamie Kasper, director of the Arts Education Partnership and former music teacher, states, “Sometimes folks who are not involved in the arts focus on the product without realizing that that is not the most important part of what we do.”
According to a 2022 report from U.S. News and World Report, an arts education can aid in building major life skills for young people, well beyond singing, painting, or various other forms of art. An education in the arts develops social-emotional and interpersonal skills in youths and teaches them to listen to and learn from constructive criticism. This in turn, bolsters their academic achievements and improves their focus.
The success and graduation rate of students involved in the arts is higher than their peers that didn’t take an art class. Studies also show that the success/graduation rate is even higher among at-risk students from traditionally underserved and underfunded schools when provided a well-rounded art education.
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