Students from Washington, Oakton and Dawes schools demonstrated their understanding of rhythm and movement to the tune of Leroy Anderson’s “The Syncopated Clock.” Photo by Mary Mumbrue

Saying human creativity is “by far the most powerful force on the planet,” Ra Joy, executive director of Illinois Arts Alliance, returned to his hometown and school district with a message to strengthen the arts curriculum.

The Illinois Arts Alliance made a state wide tour last month encouraging parent groups, civic leaders and school faculty and administrators to support arts education. The Oct. 29 gathering at the Joseph Hill Education Center was the final stop.

The Alliance believes children in Illinois should have a robust, “standards-based, sequential, arts education program,” said Mr. Joy.

There is a “powerful link between arts education and student achievement, particularly for low-income and minority students,” Mr. Joy said. Communities can strengthen their public-school arts programs, he said, by creating an arts-leadership team, including the administrative leadership and having a plan. Having a team is critical for continuity. An optimal team would be arts boosters – similar to the sports booster clubs of many schools – composed of PTA members, school administrators, community members and business leaders. “And if you don’t have a plan, you have a plan to fail,” he said. These and other “key lessons” can help interested parents and others reinvigorate a core curriculum with arts, he said.

While Evanston does not yet have a single unified group whose sole focus is supporting arts education, several parts of what could become such a group were presented at the meeting. Dr. Hardy Murphy, District 65 Superintendent, spoke about the WPA-era murals at Oakton School and the necessity of preserving art as a way of “preserving history, a way of living in the present and integrating all cultures into the future.”

The nascent Evanston Arts Education Coalition, begun by School District 65 parents, is advocating for arts to be considered part of the core curriculum, “fully integrated with other curricular components” and for fine arts teachers to be “considered equal teaching partners.”

Judy Kemp, project director of the evanstARTs, an initiative by the City of Evanston, the Evanston Arts Council and Evanston Community Foundation to survey all Evanston residents about their visions of arts in Evanston, invited everyone at the meeting to take an online survey to help the group “shape a cultural vision for Evanston … [around the question] ‘What is the arc of experience we want Evanstonians to have from the time they are little bitty kids to when they are grandparents?’” Results of the survey (at evanstarts.org) will be compiled into a “roadmap to the arts in Evanston,” she said.

Before and after the speeches, students in District 65 music and drama classes entertained the audience of about 80 persons.

Mr. Joy told the audience he hoped they would work on some of the key lessons for his hometown.

“Some of my earliest memories are of creating arts in school, Mr. Joy said. “I’m proud to be from Evanston. My heart still bleeds orange and blue.”

Federal Report: ⁎ot a Flower but a Wrench

After spending 18 months studying the challenges and opportunities facing arts education, the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) concluded that arts education improves student achievement and creativity.

The “summary and recommendations” document states, “The value of arts education is often phrased in enrichment terms – helping kids find their voice, rounding out their education and tapping into their undiscovered talents. This is true, but as the President’s Committee saw in schools all over the country, it is also an effective tool in school-wide reform and fixing some of our biggest educational challenges. It is not a flower but a wrench.”

Among the findings by other studies cited in the summary are the following:

• Low-income kids who participated in arts education were four more times likely to have high academic achievement and three times more likely to have high attendance than those who didn’t. …”

• Arts can influence cognitive development by helping develop phonological awareness and improve long-term memory.

• A comparison of three arts-integration-focused schools in Montgomery County, Md., with three control schools there found that  the arts-integration-focused schools “with the highest percentage of minority and low-income students reduced the reading gap by 14 percentage points and the math gap by 26 percentage points over a three-year period. In the control schools, the number of proficient students actually went down 4.5 percent.”

The PCAH summary suggested that communities build robust collaborations among different approaches to arts education, develop the field of arts integration, expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists, utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the  place of the arts in K-12 education and widen the focus of evidence-gathering about arts education.