April 20, 2014
Schools forsake art at students’ peril PDF Print E-mail

Greetings from the Ridge.
Mindy will be entering her junior year in high school this week. She’s been our little neighbor girl since the day she was born and we’ve sort of considered her ours. Our sweetheart was raised by good parents and nurtured in a loving a community. In fact, the only thing that completely let her down in her education was her education.  
I can remember watching the young Mindy play in the yard between our houses. Oh, that girl had imagination! I’d be washing dishes and hear her tiny voice shouting out, “The pirates are coming! Get ready men!” I’d dash to the window to see no one but Mindy, out there alone, but commanding an entire fleet of the U.S. Navy. “Avast, ye rats!” she’d shout as she brandished her maple branch stick in the air and single-handedly defeat Blackbeard and his bloodthirsty crew. My old legs would dash onto the porch and cheer each victory as Captain Mindy would turn to me and take a swaggering bow, then jump onto my porch to sing “Yankee Doodle” at the top of her youthful lungs.
One July night when she was about to enter fifth grade, she staged an entire opera for the neighborhood, complete with her own script, original music, and a startlingly creative backdrop she’d painted herself courtesy of the bed sheet from our spare room. It was glorious. Our little neighbor had a resourcefulness that not only enriched her own life, but kept the whole neighborhood young. It’s too bad that her school didn’t put any value on imagination.
She couldn’t wait to enter school. I recall sitting on the porch with Mindy and her mother on her first day of preschool. “It’s gonna be so cool, Freida! I’m gonna learn to draw real good! And tonight I’ll show you how!”
When Mindy was in sixth grade her school found that a full-time art teacher was too much of an expense. Shrinking enrollment combined with increasing state mandates and the emphasis on subjects that could be tested were a deathblow to most of her grade school’s arts programs. Music was cut to one day a week then once every two weeks when the school needed to hire a social studies teacher who could also coach volleyball.
Funding for arts education has been cut as much as 75% in some states. School after school has kept only enough music to play the National Anthem at football games, and what lack of funding hasn’t devastated, the increasingly tight scheduling has all but destroyed. All this in spite of the fact that according to the National Association of State Boards of Education:
• Students who study the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and have three times better school attendance.
• Those countries that beat us in their test scores…Japan, Hungary, the Netherlands…all make music and art education mandatory.
• Researchers find that learning in music and theatre increases achievement in math and reading.
• When troubled Chicago schools formed an Arts Partnership, they began to close the gap in high and low-income students’ academic achievement.
• A multitude of studies have shown that participation in the arts greatly decreases the dropout rate among high-risk students.
It was always Mindy’s dream to perform on the high school stage, a platform now only used for basketball scorekeepers. She’d wanted to play clarinet in the band, but that would mean she’d have to drop several college-prep courses. When she played on the sidewalk outside my front door she’d pretend she was singing with the choir, who are now a handful of kids looking to fill an hour.  
Mindy’s grown a bit wiser over the years, but I can remember a day in her seventh-grade year when she told me she had to memorize the U.S. Presidents. She asked me if I remembered them all personally. I told her that I could at least recall them from Eisenhower to the present. She showed me a quote in her social studies book from President Kennedy. “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as reward achievement in business or statecraft.”
“What’s he talking about?” she asked.
“History,” I said.
You ever in Coonridge, stop by. We may not answer the door but you'll enjoy the trip.