Opinion

What the country can learn from Boston about bringing the arts back to public schools

Taking the collective approach

After years of slicing and dicing arts budgets, some school districts across the country    are introducing arts education back into the school day with broad-ranging, successful results.

Cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston have long recognized the intrinsic value of arts education for children to learn artistic skills and techniques while having the opportunity to express themselves. But it is the importance of improved readiness for success in college, career, and citizenship directly linked with arts education that has led cities like Boston to employ innovative partnerships to increase students’ access to arts.

Research findings have made clear the persistence of strong connections between arts learning in earlier years and overall academic success and pro-social outcomes. A 2009 longitudinal study by UCLA’s James Catterall showed that arts-engaged low-income students are more likely than their non-arts-engaged peers to have attended and done well in college, obtained employment with a future, volunteered in their communities and participated in the political process by voting.

For the past six years, Boston has been ahead of the curve reinvesting in arts education by generating, and sustaining, a collective effort in the city among the public, private, and philanthropic sectors that has been bucking the trend nationally, decades in the making.

Related: Do the arts go hand-in-hand with Common Core?

Since its launch in 2009, Boston Public Schools’ BPS Arts Expansion Initiative has enabled arts education to reach 14,000 more students annually in city schools. This year, nine of 10 students in grades pre-K through eight are receiving weekly arts instruction. Access to any arts instruction for high school students during the school day has more than doubled, from 26 percent to over 60 percent, during the same six-year period.

These changes have come as a result of a concerted effort on the part of the city and its partners, including EdVestors, a nonprofit in Boston, as the convener and anchor partner of the work. Local theaters, museums, nonprofit cultural organizations and other institutions are partnering with schools and creating a lasting bond among school staff, students, their families, and the city’s cultural community.

The combination of the city’s leadership and vision, coordinated private philanthropy with a data-driven agenda, and significant investments in building partnerships and district capacity through increased investments in Boston Public Schools arts teachers and the Boston Public Schools arts department has enabled schools across the district to create time and space for the arts.

The success of Boston Public Schools arts education is underpinned by increased public funding by Boston Public Schools, which now invests over $21 million annually in arts education, hiring 120 additional full time arts teachers. Private philanthropy provides a catalyst and incentive to the increase in public dollars. Together, investments along with grant awards, are paying off in greater student and parent engagement and a richer school climate and educational experience.

In a recent survey of students EdVestors conducted, nearly half of middle and high schools students reported wanting more arts as part of their regular school day. Many respondents stated their belief that their arts education contributed to their future professional and academic success.

Related: Can the arts get students to college?

Similarly, a poll of parents conducted last year, revealed strong support for arts education among parents in Boston Public Schools. Boston Public Schools parents believe arts education keeps their children engaged in school and helps improve academic performance. In addition, schools that offer the arts are viewed as more desirable by parents, with 60 percent of parents responding that the arts are a “very important” component of a good school.

Mayor Marty Walsh and the city’s newly named superintendent Dr. Tommy Chang, have a solid foundation to build on this success to ensure all BPS students enjoy the benefits of arts education.  In a city with a rich arts and cultural heritage and a future dependent on creative citizens, access to arts learning is vital. City leaders know this matters not only to the future of the city, but to the parents and students present today in their schools.

The BPS Arts Expansion Initiative has received national recognition, from the National Endowment for the Arts. This long-standing collaborative approach in Boston is gathering steam in other parts of the country as well. Chicago, New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles are also providing examples for how to move this important agenda in different city contexts. What remains true throughout the country is that a collective approach to our children’s education is critical in achieving success.

Marinell Rousmaniere is the senior vice president for strategic initiatives at EdVestors, a school change organization focused on accelerating improvement in urban schools.

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Marinell Rousmaniere

Marinell Rousmaniere is the senior vice president for strategic initiatives at EdVestors, a school change organization focused on accelerating improvement in urban schools. See Archive