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Whether or not you have a kid in school, the future depends on arts education.

The morning bell at Northgate Elementary cuts through the din of 250 students thronging backpacked and bleary-eyed down the school’s linoleum halls. Lockers slam, sneakers squeak, another bell wails as kids of every color and shape, in hoodies and hijabs, funnel into classrooms. Inside Zac Stowell’s classroom, 18 fourth and fifth graders arrange themselves in front of their desks, aligned around the perimeter of Room 16.

A voice over the intercom leads the Pledge of Allegiance, which the kids recite in unison, followed more enthusiastically by the Northgate Pledge, which ends in an affirmation: “I will try to do right to make my future look bright! I am a winner!” Ninety percent of the students at Northgate come from families below poverty level; 20 percent are special needs. Stowell’s 9- and 10-year-olds are giddy but remarkably composed. They’ve been looking forward to today’s lesson since last week.

Following a well-practiced call-and-response prompt, they sit on the floor in the middle of the room. Stowell picks up a plastic stylus and powers on a huge, web-enabled interactive screen hanging above a whiteboard.

Thick-set and square-jawed at 32 years old, Stowell radiates athletic energy. He’s dressed like an extreme-sports star on a day off—black V-neck sweater, Levi’s, black skate shoes. A pencil-thin beard runs from his chin to his temples to dark, close-cropped hair. His big eyes are expressive behind narrow browline glasses. He’s been looking forward to today as much as his students have.

“Today’s lesson is adding and subtracting fractions as part of a whole,” he tells the class. Then he adds, “Today’s lesson is a dance lesson.”

With a few clicks and drags on the touch screen, Stowell brings up YouTube clips from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, a UW dance series and a hip-hop dance school in Phoenix, Ariz. He points out examples of smooth movements and sharp movements and has kids use the stylus to highlight examples of each on the screen.

“Now you’re thinking in dance concepts,” he says. “Our goal today is to choreograph. Choreographers are the inventors of dance. They use math to plan their dances.” He counts off: “One and two and three and four.” With impressive agility and zero self-consciousness, he busts out a few moves. The class is rapt.

“Let’s say there’s a choreographer and he wants a seven-count dance, and he wants you to repeat it twice. So it’s 14 total moves, right? He says he wants five-sevenths of your dance to be sharp. What fraction’s gonna be smooth? Don’t blurt out, please.”

Hands go up. Stowell calls on a boy who answers quietly. “Two-sevenths should be smooth?” Stowell repeats. He draws the fractions on the board, runs through a few more examples, then brings up the day’s final problem on the screen:

The choreographer has been asked to create a dance for the dance company. The dance will have a pattern that is a total of 10 counts. The pattern will have 2 parts: smooth and sharp. The sharp percussion part is 2/5 of the pattern. How many counts are sharp and how many counts are smooth?

Stowell tells the class to form groups of four or five. Each group is going to answer the problem by choreographing a dance. These kids are used to being asked to be creative, to collaborate on new things. But what transpires over the next 15 minutes is, frankly, amazing.

The kids huddle up, and without much direction, they choreograph.

It begins with goofy chattering. One group tries hip-hop floor moves, another starts a frenzied electric slide, others mimic Stowell’s flowy hand gestures from earlier. Around the room, the kids are locked into one another, working together. Stowell plays a slow, 10-count acoustic song and uses a ruler and a bongo to bonk the beat. Soon the kids are stepping and turning in synch, mirroring each others’ movements, kneeling or jumping or doing jazz hands. A pair of girls cartwheel in unison as their partners kick their legs. Smooth and sharp. Not exactly on the beat, but close enough. This unlikely fusion of math and dance is inspired.

Tomorrow, Stowell announces, the class will perform them for another one across the hall. The kids leave for recess, joining the rest of Northgate Elementary on the playground. In the empty classroom, Stowell enthuses to me and his teaching aide.

“How can we proactively take problems out of the way by setting kids up to succeed rather than yelling at their failures? The arts does that. If you can’t think and problem solve and generate ideas here, how can you do that on a math test? It correlates. It works. A hundred percent engagement.”

* * *

This story is a little bit about the personal achievements of any given kid in any given classroom, but it’s more about the 48,000 students in Seattle Public Schools. It’s a story that navigates a nexus of government agencies, nonprofits organizations and private interests. It involves several major underlying trends—economic, educational, cultural—so intrinsic to the world right now that they’re hard to describe. This story is about how we’re preparing for the future by teaching our kids in the present. At its heart is a principle we hold dear: Art improves our collective existence as we evolve on planet Earth.

In an era of impossibly tight school budgets, cuts are unavoidable. Time and money are at a premium. In these conditions, the subjects that get the most attention are the ones that can be most effectively quantified. Arts subjects are less easily quantified and therefore are less likely to be funded. Stacked against the familiar cornerstones of K–12 education and standardized testing, the arts are often considered “enrichment” opportunities rather than an essential means to better learning.

This wasn’t always the case. Arts education was given high priority on federal and state levels in the ’60s and ’70s. Federal cuts during the Reagan-led ’80s initiated the shift away from arts instruction, further diminished by the standardized test boom of the ’90s. (Magnet schools emerged under these conditions.) Today we’re at a much-publicized crisis point for art in schools. It’s almost extinct.

As we examine our current public education system, one big question is how effectively we’re preparing future generations to flourish in today’s economy. What skills do kids need to learn in order to succeed as contributing members of society? What are the skills of the future?

Bestselling author and TED-talker Daniel Pink describes the end of the information age and the beginning of the conceptual age. Today we leave data to computers but rely on human brains to synthesize complex information, solve dynamic problems and be creative. He’s never given a TED talk, but the Dalai Lama talks about setting up children to thrive by teaching them the most human behavior of all: empathy. A little compassion goes a long way toward reducing violence, bullying and other community-corroding crimes.

Art isn’t merely an enrichment program; it’s a key element of productive personhood. This is common sense—we all want to be well-rounded people—but ingraining arts into the most basic institutional directives of public schools is a profound shift in policy and in perception.

Research, anecdote and intuition all suggest that experience in the arts—visual arts like drawing and painting, performing arts like music and theater—is invaluable to teaching creative problem solving, confident personal expression, collaboration with other students and willingness to try new things. These are the “21st-century skills” education experts believe are the basis of a sound future.

A few years ago, the acronym STEM become something of a mantra in public-education circles. It stands for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and it’s meant to emphasize the classroom subjects that will be most useful in a tech-driven job market. STEM teaches students how to interact with technology fluently and at the most fundamental level.

Arising from an ongoing initiative launched by the Rhode Island School of Design, new conventional wisdom suggests that missing from that acronym is an A for Arts. Students of STEM make a skilled workforce capable in complex technical occupations and productive at a highly efficient rate. But efficient production doesn’t fully exploit the opportunities of today’s economy. To carry America’s mantle as a world leader in innovation, to develop the new ideas and industries that will change the world, students need the benefits of arts education. Pundits use the phrase “turn STEM to STEAM.”

In art classes of every stripe, there’s less pressure for students to meet established goals. They’re often graded on creative approach instead of objective standards. There’s no right or wrong way to paint a portrait or write a song. In this environment, students are more likely to experiment with new ideas, to be vulnerable, to dig into who they are and how they feel. They are allowed to fail without fear.

“Most of us live in a world where failure isn’t fatal,” says author and new-economy guru Seth Godin in a hugely popular YouTube interview. “If you’re obsessed with doing what everyone else is doing because you’re afraid of someone saying you failed, you’re in big trouble.” Godin’s statements aren’t about education per se, but his points apply. Allowing students to productively fail is how we train them to innovate. That environment is common in drama and music classes. It’s rare in math and science classes.

We’re only beginning to connect the influence of arts education on non-arts subjects. “What does learning to play violin have to do with my kid getting into Stanford?” is a valid question, but also a quaint one. Obviously, only a small fraction of the students who choose arts classes in middle or high school will become working artists. The majority will move into other fields, carrying the benefits of arts learning wherever they go.

“Think about the workforce we’d have,” says Randy Engstrom, director of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. “Think about the economy we’d have if we made investments in the 21st century life skills that arts education gives young people.”

* * *

The people of Seattle embrace the arts in a huge variety of ways. According to national research institute Americans for the Arts, Seattle ranks in the top 10 of per-capita artists, arts-generated revenue and arts professionals in American cities. For Seattleites, creativity is a priority.

So it’s no surprise that among the area’s many arts organizations, roughly 200 of them provide some kind of arts instruction to kids, in or out of school. These organizations include everything from major theatres and museums—nearly all of which have sizable education programs that reach many thousands of kids a year—to smaller nonprofits dedicated to youth. Reel Grrls, for example, trains and mentors girls in media technology; Arts Corps provides after-school classes in various art forms and places teaching artists in school residencies; Youth in Focus teaches photography to kids struggling with racism, homophobia and poverty. Compared to other major cities, Seattle is blessed with tons of these valuable programs.

“We can and should point to the transformative work happening already in Seattle,” says Elizabeth Whitford, executive director of Arts Corps. “But Arts Corps is one of the largest providers of arts education in the district and we’re not nearly able to meet the need. There are lots of barriers that are more than monetary, that are systemic.”

No amount of outstanding arts instruction from nonprofits can replace a coordinated public school curriculum. Which is why in 2007 the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs invested $500,000 over five years to establish the visual and performing arts department at SPS. Funds from the city were used to hire department director Carri Campbell, who has led the effort to improve access to arts instruction for all students district-wide. So far, Campbell’s department has leveraged an additional $2 million to support arts education, including professional training for arts teachers and new arts programs like school orchestras.

The new funds include a $1 million research and planning grant from New York-based research philanthropy the Wallace Foundation. Since the mid-’00s, Wallace has invested in arts education research in Dallas, Boston and Los Angeles. (In 2008, it also made a series of significant grants to Seattle-based organizations to develop arts audiences among youth and adults.) Using the Wallace grant, SPS embarked on an 18-month assessment of arts education in Seattle schools and developed a plan to ensure equal access to art for all kids.

It’s been an enormous undertaking: SPS talked to 2,000-plus students, families, educators and arts organizations and analyzed achievement data for 24,000 elementary students and enrollment patterns for 4,000 high school students.

The SPS study revealed significant gaps in arts education. It found that some schools offered a variety of arts classes and requirements, while some offered fewer and some none at all. A whopping 40 percent of elementary school students receive zero instruction from a certified arts teacher.

Disparity between neighborhoods, races and ethnicities was also vast: Schools in North Seattle are well-stocked in arts teachers, classes and materials, but South Seattle schools are lacking or entirely devoid of these resources. Students from low-income families, which are disproportionally families of color, are often the ones who attend schools with no arts programs. In schools with more access to resources, Parent Teacher Student Associations (PTSAs) sometimes raise money for arts programs, but not every school can pull that off, which only deepens the disparity. Arts education isn’t an issue of enrichment or well-roundedness. It’s a matter of social justice.

In February of this year, officials announced the SPS plan to the public at a celebratory event at the Paramount Theatre. It’s truly a million-dollar plan, providing an incredibly detailed roadmap for integrating arts education into non-arts subjects and bolstering traditional art, theater, dance and music classes in public schools, from kindergarten to 12th grade.

To implement the plan, SPS will focus on a few key areas. It will measure progress toward equitable access, give teachers training and support, and empower principals as arts leaders for their individual schools. District-wide curriculum improvements will emphasize the lasting benefits of arts education, but will also require specific areas of expansion, like a dance unit in physical education and a theatre program in every high school.

The district’s recent return to a neighborhood feeder model will also play an important role in making all of this happen. Up until three years ago, families could choose their kids’ schools, which made tracking students and their progress pretty much impossible.

“In the previous system, if you were a music family, and you really wanted your kids to be in music programs, you would’ve figured out the elementary school that had really great music programs,” says SPS’s Carri Campbell. “Then you would’ve figured out the middle school that had really great music programs. Then you would’ve figured out the high school. And it probably would’ve been all over the city.”

Now students follow a path from one school to the next based on their neighborhood, and educators can better ensure a continuum. This new approach holds the entire system accountable for imparting skills from K–12.

Of course, the other necessary ingredient to this recipe is money. SPS had hoped that the Wallace Foundation would return as a significant funder for the implementation phase. But in mid-March, Wallace announced that it had changed its research priorities and would offer no additional funding. Instead, SPS and its partners, including Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, will pursue funding from a combination of national and local sources. Roughly $1 million is needed to move forward with the first year of implementation.

“Wallace was a catalyst,” Campbell says. “But ultimately it is our city’s responsibility, our community’s responsibility, our state’s responsibility, to continue and sustain the work.”

The stakes are high—whether or not you’re a parent or a teacher or a kid in school. This shift is one of the most important civic changes Seattle can make.

“Seattle has always had the ability to create and innovate. That’s been our strength,” Engstrom says. “We want to make arts education part of an education. Not because it’s charitable or the right thing to do, but because it’s a thoughtful investment in the future of our city.”

Photo by Nate Watters

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