In June of 2013, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission approved massive cuts in funding in what critics referred to as “The Doomsday Budget.”
In addition to severe cutbacks to necessities such as materials, faculty, and athletics, the prophetically dubbed budget plan entailed the wholesale elimination of arts and music programs in the majority of the city’s public schools.
The Commission passed this budget, which Superintendent William Hite called “catastrophic,” in response to an estimated $304 million shortfall in 2013.
What This Means for Philadelphia Students
The repercussions of this plan to arts education for Philadelphia students have been deep and long-lasting. In a recent survey by Philadelphia nonprofit Portside Arts Center, only 13 out of 40 public schools had active programs in the arts or music. Center staff posits that this number has now likely decreased.
The deficiency of exposure to the arts in the primary and secondary school systems has the potential for a wide array of detrimental effects, according to many experts.
The National Art Education Association states in its online report, “NAEA on the Importance of Arts Education”: “In art classes, we take visual images, and we study images. Increasingly, these images affect our needs, our daily behavior, our hopes, our opinions, and our ultimate ideals. That is why the individual who cannot understand or read images is incompletely educated.”
Studies by the Philadelphia Education Fund have also shown that children who study art are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, as well as more likely to excel in other areas such as math and science.
Other analysts point to the essential life lessons and development of value systems which are sacrificed if education in the arts is removed.
Kristen Engeretsen notes in her article, “The Intrinsic Benefits of Arts Education”: “The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem-solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.”
What Philadelphians Are Doing About It
The consequences of the near-eradication of Philadelphia’s formal arts programs have moved several of the city’s nonprofit organizations to implement alternative methods of providing arts education, as well as revitalizing the arts in schools which have suffered from these drastic cutbacks.
Portside Arts Center is one such organization: a 501c-3 established in 2007 by director Kim Creighton, the Center holds between 75 and 100 different classes at a time. Its core courses include Children’s Arts and Crafts (a “make and take” class), “Girl Power,” stained glass, mosaic, and a full music program.
Classes are available to people of all ages and pertain to an extremely wide variety of artistic interests. The Center receives around 1200 students of the primary and secondary age group.
“One of the great things about [us] is that we offer teaching artists and community artists the chance to do their own class,” says Jenna Wilchinsky, a visual arts teacher at the Center. “Another thing we do, we’ve gotten a lot of community suggestions as well; that’s how we got our upholstery class started.”
In addition to in-house classes, Portside also establishes supplementary art programs at schools in need. “[In] our first outreach program… we decided to go into Alexander Adaire Elementary school, which is down the street from us. They were a school that was on the verge of closing because they kept losing enrollment, so they wanted to bring in extracurricular activities.
“The principal of the school at the time was really pushing for the arts and music… so we came in and did an after-school program with music, illustration for the older group, and arts and crafts.”
The results of this endeavor proved to be overwhelming. “The response we got from the parents – they were saying, ‘my child is excited to go to school again.’ They would come to school for anything. So after that, we said, that’s it.”
The Center then went about gathering information on which local schools were in need of art and music classes, and in 2012-13 they received a $26k grant from the Connelly Foundation and Impact Services through the assistance of State Representative John Taylor.
Through this aid, the center has been able to develop its Mobile Arts Program, bringing classes in the arts to 6 Philadelphia schools and 120 children.
In addition to the lack of arts in participating schools, Ms. Wilchinsky marks, the Mobile Arts Program has been an effective solution to the distance of families from facilities like the Center.
“We were finding that children couldn’t come here, because after school their parents work until 6. They usually take the school bus home or public transit, and a lot of the parents walk.”
Bringing Portside’s classes into the communities has alleviated this strain, Center Director Kim Creighton notes. “We’ve never had a bad review. The principals love us. At the end [of the class] we have a showing, and the kids freak out. And that’s part of our mission, to build self-confidence and self-esteem.”
This model of putting art classes on wheels and taking them into the community has previously been practiced by The Clay Studio, another Philadelphia nonprofit established in 1974, with its outreach arm, The Claymobile.
Another Way The Community Is Acting
Other local organizations work not to bring the arts to students, but to bring students to the arts. Art-Reach, founded in 1986 and based in the Delaware Valley, increases accessibility of artistic events and services for underserved populations.
“Art-Reach tries to find new and innovative ways to connect students to the arts, particularly those with economic disadvantages or disabilities,” says Marion Young, Art-Reach’s Executive Director. “By providing deeply discounted tickets for as little as $1, we can help to alleviate some of the cuts that schools have experienced.”
These methods of creating opportunities to expose disadvantaged subsets of Philadelphia to art and music are accomplished partly in collaboration with school administrations.
“We try to be available to teachers and individual school representatives that are dedicated to bringing the arts to their students and help them in any way we can,” Young continues. “Additionally, we find that working with after-school programs, summer camps and community centers can help us connect our artistic programs with young people throughout the city.”
This group is continually seeking to expand its cooperative efforts with Philadelphia schools that wish to bring arts and music back into their curricula.
“We welcome school partnerships and would love to begin conversations with any school representatives interested in learning more about our services,” Young remarks.
Though these organizations hasten to note that they have no desire to replace the absent art and music classes in schools affected by continued budget cuts, their hope is that besides the positive outcomes they have already seen, they will be able to stimulate the demand for arts education by reintroducing it into schools through their unique practices. Their belief in the necessity of sustained, regular teaching in the arts motivates their application of tested and successful approaches to alternative arts education.
By Bessam Idani
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