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Invest in arts education to secure NYC’s future

By Kimberly Olsen

I have been an arts educator for almost a decade, and I have learned one thing that is certain. For thousands of New York City public schoolchildren, healing, learning and thriving starts with the arts. What this means after two years of loss, anxiety and uncertainty from dealing with COVID-19: Arts education has never been more important for the educational, social and mental health of our city’s young people.

I’ve seen firsthand the impact of arts education, which lasts well beyond a student’s final bow or finishing stroke of a paintbrush. It provides students a brave space to explore new perspectives, take risks and thrive when presented with a new way of learning and communicating. I think of Michael, my student at a District 75 school in Brooklyn. He was introverted and shy when I first met him — dealing with difficult life circumstances and finding solace in theater and film trivia. The arts classroom became a space to process emotions and reflect on the realities of the world around us. After a few months in my musical theater class, Michael’s participation unlocked something in him. He blossomed both inside and outside of the classroom. He took on more leadership roles and was better engaged with school work, single-handedly creating a full research project examining the historical and socio-economical context of the musical “Annie.” Michael was given a platform to grow and thrive through the arts. But not every student has access to the same opportunities as Michael. Too often students are taught to achieve test scores instead of ensuring they are healthy, safe, supported and challenged. New York City has been slashing arts education for decades, undervaluing its importance for supporting the “whole child.” Prior to COVID-19, 67% of principals noted funding for the arts was generally insufficient. Only 34% of middle schoolers are meeting the state arts learning requirements. Seventeen percent of schools still lack a certified arts teacher. Almost 30% of schools no longer partner with an arts or cultural organization. This is destructive. Not just for our students, but for the future of our city. Fortunately, we have an opportunity to fix this. In 1997, the old Board of Education created Project ARTS, the first per capita required funding allocation for arts education since the 1970s. Mayor Bloomberg eliminated this funding in 2008. The money has slowly started to come back, but it’s not nearly enough. Right now, the city’s Department of Education allots a meager $79.62 per student of fair student funding for arts education. While this money should go directly to schools to hire arts teachers, buy supplies and build community partnerships, it can also be used for other non-arts expenses. That’s why we are asking the DOE to raise this number to $100 per student — and guarantee it. We know an excellent arts education can be the foundation and launching pad to success in school and life. It has positive effects on student attendance, parent engagement and test scores. Students who come from a low-income background and participate in the arts have a dropout rate of just 4%. The Adams administration has smartly expressed plans to continue and expand Summer Rising, a free program that provides enrichment in the arts, as well as academic and social support. The cultural community has long partnered with schools to improve this instruction and provide out-school experiences for students. It is critical that the mayor and City Council build on these programs’ successes by directing at least $5.6 million in funding for arts and cultural partnerships and opportunities during Summer Rising. Additionally, for the current school year, the DOE set aside $70 million (about 20% of the $350 million in the American Rescue Plan Act) in funding for academic recovery services specifically for arts education. The DOE must spend this money immediately before we lose it to expand standards-based arts instruction for all students during the school year and the summer in communities hit hardest from COVID-19. Lastly, the DOE must restore and baseline the $24 million for arts services cut when the pandemic hit New York City’s economy. This budget line includes Arts Partnership Grants that provide targeted opportunities for diverse groups of students, with a focus on multilingual learners, students with disabilities and family engagement programs. The road to recovery from the pandemic for students and schools alike will take years. But an investment like this is a down payment. According to a report done by Americans for the Arts, students from low-income communities who are highly engaged in the arts are more likely to have obtained gainful employment, completed college, and volunteered in their communities than their peers with low arts involvement. It starts with the arts. It’s time our city spends like it.

Olsen is an educator and the executive director of the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable.

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