Boosting Baltimore's arts education

Baltimore's schools CEO has made significant progress in the city's arts education.

Arts education programs (dance, media arts, music, theater and visual arts) are increasingly vital to the success of American schools. Our students are living in a world where creativity and innovation drive the economic advancement of countries and where our collective humanity is challenged in the context of complex issues. Contrary to the belief of some that arts education is a luxury in difficult times, research has repeatedly proven that it significantly contributes to the academic and social success of children during their education and beyond. Neuroscience research was presented here in Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit in 2009 showing ways that the arts are linked to brain function. Not surprisingly, schools with strong arts programs are schools of choice for families in a position to choose. Year after year, Baltimore City School parents have cited "creativity and the arts" as a top priority for their students and schools, second only to "learning climate," in school climate surveys.

The Governor's P20 Leadership Task Force on Arts Education in Maryland Schools Report released in September 2014 reflected observations about serious disparities in the quality of and access to arts education in our public schools across Maryland. The Any Given Child initiative in Baltimore city collected data during the 2012-2013 school year from City Schools, which showed that our most economically disadvantaged children in the city are receiving little or no arts education.

A group of deeply concerned citizens of Baltimore came together two years ago as the Board of School Commissioners was conducting the search for a new CEO and pleaded with the commissioners to select a leader who not only understood the value of the arts for students, but also had a track record in building effective arts programs.

The commissioners listened and to their great credit selected Gregory Thornton. As Erica Green reported in The Baltimore Sun last year, Mr. Thornton had made significant progress in expanding the arts education programs in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Our group of concerned citizens went on to form the Baltimore Arts Education Coalition, and since Mr. Thornton's arrival, we have worked with him as he has developed his plan for a standard of care that includes comprehensive arts education for each child.

Mr. Thornton has made concrete progress in expanding the number of arts teachers in schools so that beginning this school year, every city school will have at least a music teacher or a visual arts teacher. This is a net gain over last year of 21.2 arts teachers. After a decade of arts programs being eliminated in many schools, this change is evidence of significant progress. And unlike previous CEOs, Mr. Thornton initiated the recruiting and hiring process early and relied on outstanding central office arts staff for implementation. As a result, we have a promising cadre of new arts teachers joining our schools, which combined with returning arts teachers will yield a total of 267.8 arts teachers in city schools this year.

In addition to expanding the number of arts educators, Mr. Thornton has initiated the Learning Journeys program to ensure that students benefit from Baltimore's rich array of cultural resources including our world-renowned institutions. During the past school year, Mr. Thornton piloted the program, which brought all sixth graders to The Walters Art Museum to learn about visual arts and the history of ancient civilizations. This coming year, several more institutions will join the Learning Journeys program. Another strand of the city schools plan for arts education is to ensure that students have pathways to pursue chosen art forms from elementary years all the way through high school.

Mr. Thornton has convened an Arts Education Advisory Committee to draw on expertise from the field and to help engage community support for the fine arts. Further, he has been open and accessible to our coalition and to the broader community of supporters of arts education by participating in numerous events including what is becoming an annual Arts Education Town Hall meeting with parents, educators and artists.

We commend Mr. Thornton's vision and his commitment to realize our shared goals for ensuring that our students have the arts programs that will build their capacities as creative learners who can collaborate with one another, excel in school and life, and contribute their gifts to our city. Those arts programs are not only critical to their development but they are also a basic right as part of a public education and a matter of social justice.

Mary Ann Mears (maryann.mears@verizon.net) is a member of the Arts Education Coalition, a long term arts in education advocate, and a practicing sculptor creating public art. Julia Di Bussolo (julia@artseveryday.org) is a co-secretary of the Baltimore Arts Education Coailition and executive director of Arts Every Day. Stacie Sanders-Evans (stacie@yamd.org) is a co-secretary of the Baltimore Arts Education Coailition and executive director of Young Audiences of Maryland.

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