Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Education and the Arts: Vermont

[Taken from the annual State of the Arts speech, given at the Annual Meeting of the Vermont Arts Council, June 5, 2012 in the Vermont State House, Montpelier, Vermont]

In the middle of my sixth grade year my family moved from upstate NY to Brooklyn and enrolled me in a highly progressive experimental school called St. Ann’s.  Not quite 11 years old, and wearing a Nehru jacket that my mother assured me was all the rage, I walked into the school on my first day, with my heart pounding in the back of my throat.   

The very first impression I had was that, compared to the sedate western Massachusetts school I had said goodbye to the Friday before, this was complete chaos.

First there was the noise.  The hum of Brooklyn’s streets, gave way behind the school’s front door to shouts of glee from young children rushing to their homeroom; crashes from the dining hall as early arrivals finished their snacks and vied with each other for the honor of clearing their dishes the loudest.  Then there was the smell: a combination of industrial paint, disinfectant, chalk dust, fruit cocktail and overcooked green beans.  And of course there was me, smelling of fear and damp, woolen, Nehru jacket.

Most astonishing was the two-story carpeted grand staircase which led past the admissions offices on the mezzanine up to the first level of classrooms on the third floor.  It was a stunning visual introduction to a school I’d barely even heard of a week earlier.   
On this grand staircase, kids of all ages congregated; some to chat or gossip, and others to compare notes prior to attending their classes.  

One kid named Peter proclaimed loudly to anyone listening that he could descend the entire staircase in fewer than six leaps.  After skipping four steps on his first leap, he realized he’d have to skip even more in order to reach his goal.  So his second leap he cleared five steps.  It was his third leap, now trying to clear six steps, that misfortune struck.  Upon landing, his feet came out from under him and he thrumped his way down the entire rest of the staircase on his ass.

Unhurt, he popped up onto his feet, saw that I was looking in fear and admiration at his extraordinary fall, and said sagely, “that was a dumb move.” It was years before it occurred to me he was referring to my Nehru jacket, not his fall. 

St. Ann’s was and still is a truly arts-integrated school.  It didn’t give grades, just comments.  It placed you in classes by ability, not by age.  In this school, I sang my first solo, drew my first nude, wrote my first and only play and starred in it as Spock with a stunning classmate improbably named Davina opposite me as Capt. Kirk, all by the end of my ninth-grade year. 

In this school I discovered that despite my initial fears, a country boy who liked nothing better than digging in manure, fishing with night-crawlers he had gathered himself, and building forts in the woods with his brother, could survive and thrive in an arts-rich, urban environment all while learning the requisite materials in science, math, history, literature, and foreign languages.

I tell this story because the Arts Council has spent a great deal of time this year putting together a strategic plan, and one of the most significant “aha” moments came  last fall when we realized two things:  One, that far from gaining any traction in this post-911, NCLB, STEM-oriented world, the arts were, in fact, facing ongoing, and ever-increasing deficits in our schools; and two, that if we are to “stem” this tide (so to speak), we have to have a radically different vision for Vermonters and their access to the arts going forward.

So this year, our Strategic Plan in addition to calling for a greater emphasis on evaluation of programs and accountability, also calls for a renewed emphasis on arts education—particularly on the pre-K through 12 cohort in which young boys and girls transition into young adults, test societal mores, and make decisions that can profoundly impact their future for better or worse. 

Our vision is for all Vermont students to have access to a thorough, integrated, sequential, learning plan or program that includes instruction in the arts as well as instruction through the arts.  We believe this can only happen when communities demand that their schools turn STEM-only mandates in to “full STEAM ahead”-mandates in which in which the arts and creativity play a central role; in which professional arts instructors, in addition to their teaching duties, help integrate the arts into other areas of the curriculum and supplement this work with local artist- and arts organization-resources. 

Our role is to support schools in this work through showcasing successful models, providing networking and convening opportunities, and collaborating with the Department of Education and the Agency of Human Services to ensure that ALL Vermont students, especially those in difficult or constrained circumstances, have equal access to these vital programs as well as the research that justifies this type of dynamic approach.

Another much longer-term vision and thus much more difficult to develop evaluation metrics for, is for Vermont to develop a reputation for graduating young adults from its secondary and post-secondary schools who are not only well-educated, but whose ideas about the importance of civic engagement and self-awareness are informed by their knowledge of and appreciation for creativity and the arts. 

Statistically, nearly half of all students who graduate from college leave the state their school is located in and settle elsewhere.  We want those students to value their own Vermont education experience so much that either they are compelled to return when they’re ready to start their own business or raise a family, or they do everything in their power to recreate it wherever they happen to live—even if it’s in a place like Westlake, Louisiana.   

Last week Governor Jindal proudly announced that Louisiana has “privatized” its entire public school system.  Now tax payer-funded vouchers are available for parents want to send kids to schools like Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake which teaches a “Creationist perspective of Science” with no mention of the Theory of Evolution because (and I quote its Principal) “we try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children.”

Art can certainly be confusing. But isn’t that in part the point of knowing something about it?  Unpacking the meaning of a painting, or a poem, or a song—exploring its deeper, universal meaning—isn’t that kind of what life is all about?  Studying the arts is the nearest substitute we have to studying life itself.  In fact, take out the word substitute.  Art is life.  But then, if you’re reading this, there is a good chance you already know it.

About a month ago I paid a visit to the Arts Integrated Academy in Burlington’s North End.  As the door closed behind me and I climbed the stairs to the main floor, I was struck at the overwhelming similarity to my first arrival at St. Ann’s more than 40 years ago.  Even without a Nehru jacket, the sounds, sights and smells were nearly identical.  I could tell instantly that this school is Vermont’s future. 

No, there wasn’t a grand staircase, but there was art on every wall, notices about music, field trips, teaching artist visits and the like.  Most importantly, there was a full class of multi-ethnic, non-English speaking students of all ages working on a group puppet show.  This was their introduction not just to the English language and the American education system but to life in America itself, and I was so so proud of them and of the good people at the Academy and the Flynn whose diligent stewardship has turned this school into such a dynamic learning environment in just three short years.

This school is the antidote to what is happening in places like Louisiana where public policy makers have essentially given over their responsibilities to the next generation completely to the private sector.  It is today what all Vermont schools should be like tomorrow.

Our job—the Arts Council’s  job—is to make it so.