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A Beautiful Picture: NJ Schools Offer Art Classes for Almost Every Student

Art educators say it’s about more than painting or music or drama; art helps students explore who they are and can help them find their way in life

easel kids
Credit: Heather Moran via Twitter

As New Jersey’s public schools celebrate arts education this month, the state is on the verge of finally being able to say every child has full access to classes in painting, music, theater, and the other arts.

Educators say an arts-inclusive curriculum gives students the freedom to express themselves effectively, explore their interest areas, and present themselves as well-rounded individuals when they look for a job.

While the state offers a comprehensive arts education to nearly every student, however, the quality and quantity varies from district to district, usually along socioeconomic lines. Schools with tighter budgets, tend to have less robust arts programs.

Still, according to a new arts education census of school districts in all 21 counties, New Jersey is nearly at “universal access” to arts education. During the 2015 - 2016 school year, 99 percent of schools offered comprehensive arts instruction, as required by state law, according to the census conducted by Arts Ed NJ, an advocacy group.

The report found only 26 schools, serving more than 9,000 students, reported no arts instruction at all.

That’s 26 schools too many for advocates, but the barriers remain high for that final step, not the least of which is having the political will to increase funding so arts education is on par with the rest of what a school provides every day.

Bob Morrison, director of Arts Ed NJ, said if the state can reach 100 percent, it will be the first in the nation to achieve universal access to the arts. But he acknowledged there are a host of obstacles to overcome on both state and local levels.

“There is more that needs to be done,” Morrison said. “We're trying to figure out how to make sure those programs are reaching every school.”

Art educators on the defense

Arts educators say a significant portion of their time is spent defending the value of the arts and fighting to retain funding for their programs.

“I hope I live to see the day when we don’t have to advocate for the importance of an arts education,” said Dennis Argul, music supervisor in Elizabeth schools. He added, when explaining why the art department deserves to retain funding, it’s often difficult to quantify, compared with subjects like science and math.

“No one has to explain the importance of a math education. If you study math for 90 minutes a day, you get better math scores,” Argul said. Good math test scores, he said, often equate to a better overall school ranking and that doesn’t always come across with art grades. Argul argues, however, that art as self-expression may be a more accurate representation of student comprehension and intelligence than a test of rote memorization.

Arts provide a creative outlet necessary to counterbalance constant academic pressure. In 2015, West Windsor-Plainsboro superintendent David Aderhold famously sent parents a letter outlining a crisis in his district. Schools had sent more than 120 students to receive mental health screenings citing rampant symptoms of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Aderhold concluded that schools needed to do more to address the “whole student” and create more balance between testing and artistic and emotional expression.

“We get hung up on those test scores and all of a sudden that perverse game of expectations takes all of our resources and focus and we sometimes miss out on some of the other things that are so important to the development of our students,” Morrison said.

Running on STEAM

Shawna Longo, an arts integration and science technology engineering arts and mathematics (STEAM) specialist at Morris Plains schools, said it can be challenging to demonstrate the immediate value of an arts education. Even though, Longo said, big companies like Google and IBM are looking to hire innovative thinkers and problem solvers who can use an arts background to approach a tech-centered field.

Some teachers are finding success merging the arts with other subjects in an effort to provide students with creative outlets to express their learning and generate a visible way to measure growth.

“Arts integration with STEAM gives kids the opportunity to utilize the skills in arts content areas and apply them to math, science, and social studies to make them real,” Longo said. “When kids ask ‘why do I have to learn this,’ art gives them the answer to that.”

kid with lute
Credit: Shawna Longo via Twitter

Longo said art adds context and can help kids learn practical applications for many of the skills they learn in other subjects. When she teaches a music class for example, Longo said she can weave in the history of a composer, the math of keeping time, and the public-speaking skills necessary for a student to explain what they find compelling about a certain type of music.

She added that finding natural connections between art and non-art subjects and merging curriculum plans becomes exciting. In Morris Plains, Longo’s students are learning to compose music using computer software and manipulate the soundwaves according to principles of physics that they’ve learned in other classes.

“Not everything has a natural connection to the arts and that’s OK, but when you can find those moments, that’s when the learning really comes alive for the kids,” Longo said.

Long and winding road

Since 1996, New Jersey has listed visual and performing arts as one of the nine curriculum standards that every school must meet. However, the road to achieve and enforce that standard has been winding.

During Gov. Tom Kean’s administration, the Legislature in 1987 convened a Literacy in the Arts task force to assess the state of arts education in New Jersey. The results were less than impressive. Forty-three percent of districts said that they did not have an arts objective set in the local planning process for the year.

A great deal has happened in the intervening years, as the state placed new emphasis in the arts in its evolving curriculum standards. The state’s highest court even weighed in as part of the landmark Abbott v. Burke school-equity rulings, saying the arts were a critical part of what every child should be exposed to.

Arts Ed NJ in 2006 started collecting data on participation, and in that first year found more than 77,000 students attended a school with no arts program at all. Of all students in the state, only 66 percent engaged with the arts at all.

green art
Credit: Kristy Lopez via Twitter

A decade later, only 9,160 students in 2016 attended a school with no arts program and more than a million students are receiving some form of arts education in the state, an all-time high, according to the census.

Morrison said much of that increase came from simply studying school districts and identifying areas of need.

“Back in 2006 we didn't know what the status of arts education was,” Morrison said. “We put forward the census and that gave us a benchmark of where we stood. Along with that came strategies and initiatives that needed to be implemented.”

Nonetheless, Morrison said there is still ground to cover. While art participation and instruction has shot up over the years, cultural programs within schools — including field trips, assemblies, and artist-in-residencies — have seen a steep decline since 2006.

Art isn’t free

What’s more, the census data revealed deep inequities between the strength of programs around the state, often falling along socioeconomic lines where the gaps are only increasing.

The most obvious challenge schools face when developing a robust arts curriculum is funding. On average, the latest census found arts spending is $9.03 per student in elementary schools, $12.50 per student in middle schools, and $26.03 in high schools per year, although a large portion comes from nondistrict sources like parent-backed groups and foundations. (Thirty-nine percent of all schools reported that they received funding from nondistrict sources and 14 percent of schools reported using outside funding to offset budget decreases.)

But school budgets have been more than tight in the past decade, with deep cuts in 2010 and only nominal increases since. The arts have often been the first targets for cuts. That has left schools trying to be creative in an attempt to serve the most students possible. Often, arts instructors will be shared within schools in a district, moving from building to building throughout the day.

Yet Morrison said the bigger obstacle can be upper-level motivation. He said he’s seen schools with few resources build out strong arts programs, while more affluent districts fall short because some “administrators don’t value [an arts education] the same way,” and place more of an emphasis on test taking and college readiness.

He said part of it is a misunderstanding of the role of arts education.

“There is this myth that persists in some areas that we teach the arts to create great artists, but that’s not it at all,” Morrison said “We teach the arts to provide our students with a well-rounded education to give them the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in life regardless of the pathway that they choose.”

Argul said the arts education census is an important way to “shine the light on arts education and quantify in real numbers” the gains that New Jersey has achieved, but universal access should not be the stopping point.

“Data is only as good as what you do with it,” Argul said. “Universal access is a great first step but now what? Now what do we do with that? Hopefully it shows the rest of the country that if New Jersey can do it, you certainly can do it too.”

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