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Arts in Education Week: A Time to Validate the Importance of Hope

What’s hope got to do with it? When the “it” is the persistent achievement gaps for African American and Hispanic students, the answer is a lot.

I don’t know if Bill Strickland, a 1996 MacArthur Fellow and visionary arts education entrepreneur, and Richard Carranza, superintendent of the San Francisco public schools, have met (my guess is they have not), but they must be channeling one another.

The two have a lot in common, and at the top of the list is an absolute conviction to the role of the arts in creating the needed learning environment for minority students in high-poverty schools to achieve academically, thrive in and outside of school, and graduate career and college-ready. Coincidentally, Strickland and Carranza keynoted national forums on arts education — for the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH), respectively, within the past month. The forums provided a propitious run-up to National Arts in Education Week, Sept. 14-20, so designated by the U.S. Congress in House Resolution 275. Click here for the full agenda of the AEP forum and a link to the video of Bill Strickland’s keynote address.

Interest, environment, and values make a difference

“If you capture their interest,” Carranza told more than 150 attendees of the WHIEEH forum at the Pixar studios in Emeryville, Calif., “their intellect, commitment, and minds will follow.” He knows about that power of the arts firsthand, as both a student who began school not speaking English and found his voice through music, and later as a music teacher in Tucson, Ariz., who gave his students their voice through a nationally recognized Mariachi program that saw 90 percent of the students graduate from high school.

Bill Strickland, keynote speaker at the Arts Education Partnership’s national forum, Preparing Students for the Next America in and through the Arts, is joined by Sarah Tambucci, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Arts Education Collaborative, regional host for the forum. (Photo courtesy of the Arts Education Partnership)

Bill Strickland, keynote speaker at the Arts Education Partnership’s national forum, Preparing Students for the Next America in and through the Arts, is joined by Sarah Tambucci, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Arts Education Collaborative, regional host for the forum. (Photo courtesy of the Arts Education Partnership)

In the 1960s, Frank Ross, a visual arts teacher in the blighted north Pittsburgh community of Manchester, took an inquisitive high school student who was otherwise headed for a pretty rough life under his wing. Bill Stickland found his identity and a reason to come to school in Frank Ross’s art room, where he learned ceramic making and much more. That art room provided the essential ingredients for a poor kid who lacked purpose and hope — “clay, sunlight, and somebody to believe in him.” They are the very same ingredients of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild’s School Day Arts Education program today, where more than 500 Pittsburgh high school students attend ceramics and photography classes weekly and have a near perfect high school graduation rate.

“It’s environment,” Strickland told the more than 250 AEP forum attendees, “and it’s values” that include an aesthetically pleasing setting and an engaging curriculum. Couple these with a presumption that students can perform when given the right opportunities, and it results in students’ engagement and success, according to Strickland. For him, it’s as simple as “beautiful environments create beautiful kids; prisons create prisoners.”

The arts opportunity gap

Both keynote speakers offer hope in the face of sobering realities for African American and Hispanic students, for whom the achievement gaps are persistent despite recent significant upward trends in high school graduation rates for students of color. For students in high-poverty schools, there also are profound opportunity gaps.

In his recent remarks marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at Howard University, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed to the lack of Advanced Placement courses and gateway-to-college classes in advanced math and sciences for African American and Hispanic students, opportunities too often unavailable to students of color in high-poverty schools. In his videotaped remarks to the WHIEEH forum audience, the secretary cited benefits of arts education, particularly for Hispanic students, and acknowledged an “arts opportunity gap” for many students in high-poverty schools. In the most recent national survey of access to arts education in public schools, the National Center for Education Statistics reported a 15-percent gap in music and visual arts offerings between the lowest and highest poverty schools.

The arts can provide needed hope

Arts education, as the National Arts in Education Week congressional resolution notes, offers a wide range of benefits for all students, from developing 21st century skills like critical thinking and cross-cultural understanding to the “creativity and determination necessary for success in the global information age.” But for students in high-poverty schools, hope — like Bill Strickland and Richard Carranza experienced as young students and are paying forward for students in Pittsburgh and San Francisco today — deserves our attention.

The work of Gallup Education senior scientist Shane Lopez on the role of hope in schools was featured in a 2014 New York Times Next New World Forum broadcast. A recent survey in elementary schools revealed that students whose ideas and energy for their future pathways are valued are 30 times more engaged in their learning. That happens, according to Gallup Education CEO Brandon Busteed, when schools are committed to building on the strengths of each student and have teachers who make students excited about the future. “Hope as a strategy is really crucial” for all students, he observed, but especially those for whom the possible pathways to college and careers are impossible to see in high-poverty schools.

“If you believe you’re going to die at 16, 17, 18, you live a very different life than if you believe you’re going to live to be 65, 70, 80, or 90,” Secretary Duncan told the Howard University audience. Holding his right hand as if to finger the valves of a Mariachi trumpet, Superintendent Carranza observed that “when [students] have this in their hand, they won’t hold this,” letting his fingers rotate 90 degrees downward to mimic a handgun grip. A Pittsburgh art teacher knew about hope and passed it along, accompanied by the knowledge and skills that gave a young Bill Strickland the vision for a brighter future, one that led him to the University of Pittsburgh, for which he now serves as a trustee.

“We cannot promote a brighter future for our students and our country,” Secretary Duncan told the WHIEEH forum attendees, “without advocating for the arts as a critical subject in education. The President and I agree — the arts are so important when it comes to student learning, achievement, and success.”

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and editor of the OII home page.