In Times of great financial strain and uncertainty, arts education is often the first thing cut from the school curriculum. Indeed, several school districts across the Commonwealth have already laid off teachers and arts educators in the face of expected budget cuts and an unpredictable fall. Some districts may be anticipating a stricter focus on tested subjects when schools reopen to get students up to speed, but this is exactly the wrong time to be cutting arts programs.
With an ongoing global pandemic and heightened attention on racial injustice, students need arts education more than ever. The arts help students creatively engage with their classmates and communities, help combat isolation, and allow students to process their feelings and express themselves in ways that help them make sense of what’s happening in the world.
Arts education promotes positive development across the academic, social, and emotional realms. It is an essential part of a well-rounded education, not just enrichment or elective. Students involved in the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. Students who are highly engaged in the arts are twice as likely to graduate college as their peers with no arts education. And yet, despite the impressive benefits of arts education, not every student has access to these quality learning experiences.
When schools closed in March, Boston Public School students were able to continue their arts education for the remainder of the school year. Arts educators, led by Anthony Beatrice, executive director for the arts for the Boston Public Schools, utilized students’ inherent creativity to demonstrate the arts ability to unite and heal. Students from dozens of BPS schools contributed works of art to share with frontline workers in the Boston hospital community, as well as senior citizens in the City’s Age Strong Commission. BPS communities moved their art galleries to virtual spaces, or reworked their planned stage productions into rousing online events.
In addition, arts teachers across the district began taking part in online professional learning communities to share best practices and participate in weekly virtual meetings with the district’s arts department. They received professional development in building virtual ensembles, differentiating instruction, and on online tools such as FlipGrid, Google Classroom, and Soundtrap.
Over the years, the district has built up this strong support system and community of arts teachers due to BPS Arts Expansion, a public-private partnership that involves a large and coordinated network of partners, including schools, arts organizations, local and national foundations, colleges and universities, and the mayor’s office, among others. The capacity building of the Boston Public Schools to support quality arts education gave them the infrastructure and resources to quickly implement remote learning and could serve as a model for other school districts nationwide.
Arts education can be done — and done well — with some collaboration and innovation among educators. In the Boston Public Schools, the arts department created a new virtual learning section on the website where it posted many examples of what has been accomplished remotely. For example, students were able to express themselves in lessons ranging from comic book making and music composition to shadow puppetry and pandemic-themed tissue paper art.
During this time, districts and schools should be moving mountains to expand access to quality arts education instead of focusing — myopically — on tested subjects. Before students can get out from behind their screens and go back to an actual classroom, schools will need to ramp up and adapt the way they support their students’ social-emotional needs. Arts education is a powerful and effective tool in helping students process complex emotions in this challenging time. Creative expression in a safe environment, be it on or offline, can have healing effects for all.