Local artists say power of arts education could benefit whole city

At roundtable discussion, concerns expressed about state of arts in schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

What is the state of arts education in Philadelphia schools? In a lively April roundtable discussion organized by the Notebook, a panel of nine artists, art educators, and arts advocates provided passionate insights on the transformative power of art, expressed concerns that art education is imperiled in urban schools, and offered strategies for enhancing the limited arts opportunities available to most Philadelphia students.

Jacqueline Barnett

Arts instruction has often been treated as an extra by schools, but “teaching to the test” and tight school budgets have also taken a toll on arts programming in recent years, the panelists agreed. These pressures make it less likely that students can rely on having art and music on a regular basis.

“You’re a class over there, you’re added on, you’re the leftover, you’re the prep,” said 14-year veteran art teacher Eric Joselyn. He noted that art is the class “that they pull the kids from to get their double math, to get their double reading, to get their test prep.”

Jerushia Graham, who works as director of school programs for Philadelphia’s Spiral Q Puppet Theater, added, “When we’re in school … teachers are really excited about having an opportunity to expose the kids [to artmaking]. Then it gets closer to testing time, and it’s, ‘Oh, you guys can’t meet with the kids for two weeks, three weeks.’”

Lynne Horoschak, a former District art teacher who now directs art education for Moore College of Art, brought up budget pressures. At a local middle school, a strong art teacher who is retiring is not being replaced –“not because the principal doesn’t want to, but because she has a budget of ‘X’ amount, and she has to make choices.”

“Principals understand,” added Germaine Ingram, a professional tap dancer who is former District chief of staff. “It’s not that they don’t appreciate [the arts]. It’s because they have to choose between an art teacher and a librarian, or an art teacher and [Advanced Placement], or an art teacher and books.”

The current situation stands in stark contrast to programming that some panelists experienced as students in Philadelphia years ago.

But these artists, educators, and advocates said we don’t have to go back four decades to look for models of what art programming should look like. Well-funded suburban schools are one nearby model.

At elementary schools in the Philadelphia suburbs, “we each have a music teacher, we each have an art teacher,” commented arts funder Beth Feldman Brandt of the Stockton Bartol Rush Foundation, whose daughter has attended suburban public schools.

“It’s not a mystery what it should be,” she said. In the suburbs, “we give instrumental music lessons in school during the school day. When you get to middle school, there’s still music, but there’s also a media lab, there’s video, there is computer drawing. When you get to high school, you can pick electives.”

Lynne Horoschak

There was general agreement among the panelists that an appropriate formula for quality arts education included regular art and music classes for all students as well as electives for students interested in opting for additional instruction and perhaps looking for a community of like-minded individuals.

But schools shouldn’t stop there, others observed. “I would like to see kids exposed in an intensive and ongoing way to practicing artists,” Ingram added.

While nobody offered quick fixes for the erosion of arts education in schools, participants debated different approaches to reversing the trend.

Panelists agreed that arts must remain an integral part of the school day while also considering such possibilities as stronger coordination between the school day and afterschool programming.

Valerie Harris, director of the Teen Writers Academy, observed that expanding access to arts in the schools will not be easy and said she sees building and strengthening community-based arts programs as critical to sustaining arts education. She and other panelists work with community-based programs that are increasingly being tapped to come into schools to teach arts, often in formal artist “residencies.”

Brandt explained, “My hope is that if you do that well, …[then] parents start saying, ‘How come they don’t have this all year?”

But Horoschak cautioned that having certified art, music, dance, and drama teachers in schools, serving children every day, should still be a key goal. “I get worried that principals say, ‘We’re going to have this artist come in and have a print-making unit with the third graders for six weeks. That’s my art – and therefore I don’t need a certified art teacher.’”

Arts advocate Julie Hawkins, director of policy and government relations for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, pointed out that the state of New Jersey “is mandating a survey for all of its public schools about to what extent they are teaching arts, what type of art, how many hours it entails, and who’s teaching it.” She said that such a survey sends a message to schools that “someone on the inside is clearly making this a priority.”

Valerie Harris

There was a sense of urgency on this panel about using the power of good arts education to address the problems facing Philadelphia’s youth and the city’s future as a whole.

“Art allows you to self-explore, figure out who you are and be able to have a voice,” said Jacqueline Barnett, the city’s secretary of education and a former ballet dancer. “Our kids are screaming to be seen and to be heard and to have expression, and are hurting themselves and others because they are boxed in.”

“The idea that you are a creative figure in the world is empowering,” added Magda Martinez, director of community partnerships at the Fleisher Art Memorial.

“I think what artists really are good at is seeing possibility,” Martinez observed. “You see – you imagine possibility before something happens. Nothing is more important for a civic community [than] a group of people who see possibility – who can imagine themselves in other than the present state they’re in.”

Notebook editorial board member Benjamin Herold facilitated the roundtable discussion and contributed to this article.