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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December 2019

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Joyner Park Community Center
701 Harris Rd.
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Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Telephone: 919-676-6368
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Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
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Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
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Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Cost: Free

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Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University
1336 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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Cost: Free

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Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
12605 Capital Blvd
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Sponsor: Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
Telephone: 919-556-7777
Contact Name: Meghan Reynolds
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Cost: $10-$60/person

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Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 East South Street
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone: 919-996-8700
Contact Name: Blake Jones
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Cost: Free

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White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27513
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Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Telephone: 919-387-4342
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Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Cost: $3/person

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Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Cost: $10/child

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
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Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Get into the holiday spirit by decorating cooking, making a craft and enjoying a holiday children's show.

Cost: Free

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Cost: Free

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State Farmers Market
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Cost: free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for everyone, and adult accompanime

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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North Carolina Museum of Art East Building and Museum Plaza
Raleigh, NC


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Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
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Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Cost: Free

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Crossroads Fellowship
2721 E Millbrook Road
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Crossroads Fellowship
Telephone: 919-981-0222
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1058 West Club Blvd
Durham, NC  27701
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Telephone: 919-560-2726
Contact Name: Lauren Tannenbaum
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Cost: Free

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Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
, NC  27513
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Cost: $32/resident, $42/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Our Reindeer Romp is open to the entire community and our Girls on the Run families. So join us! Celebrate as nearly 1,000 girls reach their end-of-season goals – the finish line is only the...

Cost: $30 - $35

Where:
Koka Booth Amphitheater
8003 Regency Pkwy
Cary, NC  27518
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Sponsor: Girls on the Run of the Triangle
Telephone: 919-401-6307
Contact Name: Jamie Botta
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Ages 5-12 make a picture frame for the holidays. Snack provided. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

More information

Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Travel with us to Puerto Rico with books, games and arts and crafts!  Join the staff of ISLA (Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition) for a fun filled hour! Best for ages 3 and up with a...

Cost: Free Gratis

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

One ticket admits the entire family to decorate a special gingerbread house. Supplies provided. Workshops available at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Allergy-free workshop available at 11 a.m....

Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
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Family Wildlife Series: Holiday Habitat Helpers Saturday, December 14, 2-3 Attract winter wildlife to your backyard by providing or improving their habitat.  Create simple outdoor decorations...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us as we watch for meteors during the Gemenids Meteor Shower. Local astronomers will help us observe these shooting stars and other phenomena in the night sky. As a bonus we may see or hear...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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See the choir perform beloved Christmas songs with guest vocal group AVANTE. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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