How Arts Education Makes Kids Smart


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Lined up along my office wall, my daughter’s elementary school self-portraits show how she has grown — not just physically, but also as an artist, as someone who can create imaginative representations of identity. The more primitive kindergarten self, with wild yarn hair, jagged teeth and disproportionate limbs, shares space with the more realistically featured third-grader with a neat blond bob and thoughtful eyes. Both pieces speak to how vision, skill and execution — the artistic process — combine to create a work of art that is unlike any other.

But it’s more than that. In moving from inspiration to creative product, she isn’t just filling space with colors and shapes. She and her fellow students are developing skills — known as “habits of the mind” — that are key to success across the curriculum in school, and in life. And as the demand grows for graduates who are not just savvy test-takers but also innovative, adaptable thinkers, the necessity of quality arts education for all children becomes more and more apparent.

How the arts make kids smart

It’s no secret that involvement in the arts — dance, music, theater and visual arts — is enriching. “The arts stir a child’s curiosity and creativity while teaching discipline, hard work, determination and perseverance,” says Kathy Mitchell of Apex, whose daughters, Madison, 10, and Sydney, 8, take dance and piano lessons. “As a result of their performing, I notice a sense of confidence and self-esteem in my kids.”

But research into the outcomes of arts education shows that the arts do more than that: They make better students. Christie Lynch Ebert, arts education consultant at the N. C. Department of Public Instruction, explains: “Numerous studies point toward a consistent and positive correlation between a substantive education in the arts and student achievement in other subjects and on standardized tests,” she says.

The following are among the capabilities strengthened by arts education, identified by the Arts Education Partnership in its 2002 report, Critical Links:

Reading and language development, from helping children make the connection between sounds and written language to reading comprehension and writing proficiency.

Spatial reasoning and spatial-temporal reasoning skills, considered fundamental to understanding and using mathematical concepts.

Creative thinking and conditional reasoning or theorizing about outcomes and consequences.

In addition, through their focus on process as well as product, the arts stress innovation, persistence and self-reflection. Gussie Marshallsea, art teacher at Olive Chapel Elementary School in Apex, puts it this way: “Students are encouraged to find their artistic ability by feeling confident — there is no wrong way — and to take creative risks without worrying about mistakes.”

Such emphasis on experimentation is a far cry from the outcome-driven curricula in many academic subjects. But researchers have found that the “habits of the mind” developed in arts classes often inform and enhance students’ experiences in these other areas. In fact, students with the discipline and tenacity to stick with their artistic pursuits are also more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and regular attendance and to participate in leadership roles.

At-risk students find success in arts

Arts education has an even greater impact on students who are economically disadvantaged or need remediation. Participation in the arts stimulates motivation to learn, effective social behavior and community engagement — all crucial for the success of at-risk students.

Lisa Van Deman, executive director of North Carolina Arts in Action, has seen how the dance curriculum her educators take into schools connects with struggling students. “We see all the time how children who may not perform well in a traditional classroom setting … absolutely blossom because of the noncompetitive nature of the arts,” she says. “The arts provide a truly level playing field for children—everyone has something to contribute to the betterment of the whole.”

It is in this context of community that even the most disengaged students can find purpose. “Providing an environment that encourages success for everyone resonates with children,” Van Deman notes, “and they almost always rise to the occasion and push themselves to succeed.” In this way, the arts provide a unique pathway to help all students find success, both in school and beyond.

Arts education in the Triangle

Parents who want these opportunities for their children have policy-makers on their side. The N.C. Standard Course of Study, updated in 2005, affirms arts education as beneficial to “both student and society,” and it requires that arts education be a part of every child’s basic education. Coupled with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which identifies the arts as a core subject, these guidelines amount to a promise that all North Carolina schoolchildren will enjoy the benefits of a quality arts education.

However, school systems may find it difficult to keep that promise. Critics contend that an intensified focus on academic subjects tested under NCLB has in some schools resulted in those subjects being emphasized over others, such as the arts, that aren’t tested directly. Given the ways in which arts education can contribute to students’ academic success, the shift is shortsighted at best.

Marshallsea, as a classroom art teacher, acknowledges the challenge. “We want our kids to succeed and do well,” she says. “[So] when the focus is [more on] standardized tests results, arts teachers work even harder to ensure that students are engaged in a comprehensive curriculum. Many of our students learn best through arts activities where learning comes alive and connections across the curriculum are made.”

The plummeting economy has added to the tension between academics and the arts. Financially strapped school systems, facing staff layoffs this year, struggle to find ways to meet these educational mandates with fewer teachers. The arts are at risk of being marginalized, or, worse, eliminated. For schools that are committed to maintaining quality arts education programs, dealing with these challenges becomes its own lesson in adaptability.

Theresa Grywalski, a former theater teacher who is now the arts coordinator for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS), has faced many budget challenges in her career. “Unless we have the ability to weave straw into gold, we must look at the financial reality: There is less to go around, and so programs will feel the impact,” she says. “[But] I find it impossible to ask teachers who use supplies to do more with less art materials.”

As a result, Grywalski reports, teachers, parents and even suppliers have gotten “very creative” in meeting funding needs: “I actually had our clay distributor call and suggest we save money on shipping by delivering the clay to one location instead of each individual school,” she explains. “It was a bit more work for me and our maintenance group, but the savings can then be put back into art supplies.”

Mary Casey, director of K-12 Arts Education for the Durham Public Schools (DPS), acknowledges that they, too, have had to make difficult choices this year. “The hard part in arts,” she explains, “is that often one teacher can be the whole program at a school, so cuts are very noticeable.”

To minimize this effect on arts education, DPS Superintendent Carl Harris instructed his staff to avoid layoffs that would result in an entire program being cut from a school. The mandate has presented some logistical challenges — some arts teachers now work at more than one school, for example — and fewer classes may be offered in any particular program, but the system has managed to protect most of its arts offerings. “DPS is fortunate to have a superintendent who realizes the value of the arts,” Casey says.

How parents can help

Even as administrators and teachers do their best to provide solid arts education in the face of these challenges, they emphasize that parental involvement is crucial if the potential of arts education is to come to fruition for all children.

The simplest way to support the arts is by encouraging your child’s interest. “Parents play a key role in fostering a love of the arts in their children,” Casey says. She recommends starting early, giving young children a place to work and some simple materials. “Show interest in their work,” she says. “Talk to them about their process and their inspiration.”

As they get older, make their participation in arts programs possible by carpooling to rehearsals, donating supplies or lending a hand with labor. Most importantly, she says, support them by attending their shows.

Patronize other artists as well. “I’m a big believer in the power of the audience. I think [all] parents … should attend school performances and art shows,” Grywalski adds. “They should bring their children and relatives to show support for the efforts and talents at the school.”

Also, let school leaders know that the community values arts education. “Advocacy begins at the local level,” Ebert says. Parents can “attend local school board and county commissioner meetings, provide information about the importance of the arts . . . and insist that arts education is available for their students.”

Clearly, the positive outcomes for children make those efforts worthwhile. “Participation in the arts contributes directly to the healthy development of ‘the whole child,’ and, thusly, to a civil society,” Van Deman concludes. “As National Dance Institute founder Jacques d’Ambroise is fond of saying, ‘You fill a child with good things, and good things will come from him.’”

Karen Taylor is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Apex with her husband and two daughters.

 

For More Information

Check the following Web sites for additional information about arts education:

The Arts Education Partnershi is a coalition of more than 100 national education, arts, business and philanthropic organizations and the publisher of Critical Links.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Web site includes the Spring 2008 Making the Grade, which focuses on arts education and how parents can encourage their children to participate in the arts.

N.C. Arts in Action is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to transforming the lives of children through participation in the arts.”

National Arts Education Public Awareness Campaign advocates for greater arts education funding through awareness of its many benefits to children.

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The Cary Kennel Club, Alamance Kennel Club, Durham Kennel Club, Raleigh Kennel Club and Fayetteville Kennel Club join forces to bring dog lovers a variety of dog competitions, obedience and rally...

Cost: $5/person

Where:
North Carolina Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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The Vernal Equinox signals the beginning of Spring. It is the point when there are exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness at the equator. Mark the change of seasons by heading to the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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This high-flying aviation event features displays and flight activities from the Wright Brothers Flyer to modern aircraft of today.  Activities are geared toward students and school groups...

Cost: $4-$12

Where:
North Carolina Transportation Museum
1 Samuel Spencer Drive
Spencer, NC  28159
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Telephone: 704-636-2889
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Enjoy the museum's annual celebration of flowers. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $13/members and $18/nonmembers. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Telephone: 919-839-6262
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Do you love owls? If so, join us to learn all about them! Discover these amazing raptors' adaptations and why they are important to the ecosystem. We will be practicing our different owl calls and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Enjoy spring open house featuring seven model homes on the tour, as well as kite-flying demonstration by seasoned professionals. Start your tour at the information center, and get ready for...

Cost: Free

Where:
Briar Chapel Information Center
1342 Briar Chapel Parkway
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Sponsor: Newland Communities
Telephone: 888-249-9429
Contact Name: Cherith Andes
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Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30 or 3 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring the mill's history...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), kids ages 6 & under: free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Harris Lake County Park is home to several species of salamanders. Join us as we learn about these elusive amphibians and see some up close. All ages. Meet in the Educational Garden at the picnic...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Durham Stake presents a family-friendly show featuring favorite Dr. Seuss books all together in one story. Join the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, and many others on a journey through...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
1050 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Contact Name: Bethany Fager
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is putting on the hilarious, yet sometimes tender, musical production of Seussical on March 15-16 and 22-23. It is a family-friendly show that...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
1050 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Durham Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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The Raleigh Boychoir will reach new heights as our choristers and community present Dr. Tim Sharp’s “High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass.” Welcoming area boys to perform in...

Cost: Free

Where:
First Baptist Church
99 N Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Raleigh Boychoir
Telephone: 919-881-9259
Contact Name: Erin O'Hara
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online. Choose course #121675.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Celtic Woman celebrates Ireland's rich musical and cultural heritage, while continuing its remarkable legacy of introducing some of Ireland's most talented singers and musicians onto the...

Cost: $43 and up

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Shop for gently used kids' clothing, toys, furniture, baby equipment and more. See the website for shopping hours.

Cost: Free

Where:
Hayes Barton Baptist Church
1800 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2018-19 Education Guide offers 678 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools, academic resources and an Exceptional Child special section.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2018 Readers' Favorites are.