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The Importance of Heading Back to School with Arts Education

By Nancy Daugherty

Over the course of the past year and a half, as our lives have been upended in so many ways, the arts education team of the National Endowment for the Arts has been inspired by the commitment of arts organizations, school districts, teachers, and teaching artists who have found ways to continue providing excellent arts education experiences to students across the country.

The shift from in-person programming to virtual learning wasn’t easy. Arts organizations and schools had to quickly work out how to provide meaningful learning opportunities through a screen and help students overcome barriers to participation in the virtual space. For example, Cathedral Arts Project (CAP) typically works in locations across Jacksonville, Florida. When the pandemic hit, they relied on their cohort of teaching artists to learn how to use technology effectively so they could reach students in their homes. CAP also collaborated with the school district to provide art kits that were distributed by school buses that were already delivering meals and laptops to students.

Unfortunately trauma and disruption have historically taken many forms in the lives of our students—through school shootings, natural disasters, a caregiver’s job loss, and food or housing insecurity. The global pandemic exacerbated and widened the educational equity gap, creating more stress and trauma for students, families, teachers, and communities. But it also provided an opportunity to pause and reconsider how to better support students’ well-being.

The arts can play a crucial role for students and educators, especially in addressing healing and trauma. Through research we know that participation in the arts can support the social and emotional learning needs of students, including teaching emotional regulation and compassion for others. They can also provide an outlet for students to process their emotions following trauma so they can begin the healing process and build resiliency. With the understanding that this will be a key factor in supporting students as they transition back to school and to help accelerate learning, the Arts Endowment is deeply committed to supporting arts education projects that address healing, trauma, and wellness.

Our primary goal is to reduce barriers to participation in the arts to ensure that every student can be engaged and empowered through an excellent arts education. It is notable that almost 80 percent of the agency’s preK-12 arts education projects directly engage underserved populations, including children with disabilities, Native American children, students who live in low-income communities, and LGBTQ+ students.

For example, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles (YOLA at HOLA) provides free, after-school orchestral music instruction to students from underserved communities throughout the year. YOLA at HOLA was inspired by the El Sistema youth orchestra model that supports the emotional and physical health of children as well as music learning. In Somerville, Massachusetts, Partners for Youth with Disabilities, Inc., teaches acting, improvisation, movement, music, and visual arts skills to students with and without physical, intellectual, mental, and sensory disabilities through classes that promote self-esteem, creativity, healthy lifestyles, and career development as youth transition into adulthood. And to address the needs of children and youth experiencing trauma and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Young Audiences, Inc., which works nationwide, designed a professional development program for teaching artists to train them in using theater and drama therapy techniques to enhance students' social-emotional well-being and academic achievement.

The NEA also collaborates with both federal and public agencies to support student learning in the arts. For example, one of our most significant investments is the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a national network of more than 100 organizations dedicated to advancing arts education. AEP has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education since 1995, and is administered by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Through this collaboration, AEP has become the nation’s arts education hub for policy, research, and practice.

This fall, AEP will convene a Virtual Gathering September 14-15 for arts and education leaders from across the country to explore solutions aimed at ensuring all learners receive a well-rounded education that includes the arts. All are welcome to attend and engage in sessions on topics focused on equity, healing, and trauma-informed practice through the arts.

As schools across the country welcome students back after the unprecedented events they experienced last year, we hope communities everywhere take advantage of the arts education resources available at the local, state, and national levels to help students heal and thrive.

Nancy Daugherty is the NEA Arts Education Team Lead.

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