Our public schools are at the forefront of a transformation in arts education.
In 2008, 28 percent of the Colorado public schools surveyed by the Cypress Research Group had obtained outside funding for their arts programs, while another 25 percent had effectively outsourced them to other institutions in their communities.
Though 4 in 10 principals reported an overall decrease in district arts budgets since 2003, they also said fiscal matters were the least of their concerns when it came to improving their arts programs. Instead, they cited parental priorities, the difficulty of finding qualified art teachers, and, above all, the amount of time needed for core academics.
Many officials around here were reluctant to chat with the Indy about budgets and priorities. But Colorado Springs Conservatory executive director Linda Weise says local educators are seizing on those concerns as a chance to expand community involvement in their arts programs. For example, she says, her organization's involvement with public schools has seen enormous growth in the past five years.
"We have our Partner Program with Manitou School District, Harrison School District, Mountain Vista Home School Academy, Head Start, and there's a couple other school districts that are either looking to come on board in the spring or for fall," Weise says. "Knowing that their budgets are going to be cut, their thought is, 'If we can bus kids over here one day a week and they have classes like piano, music history, dance, theater ...'
"If you would have asked me five years ago, 'Look in your crystal ball and see how your core program's going to evolve,' I wouldn't have anticipated this. I'm thrilled."
Manitou Springs' school district has an internal arts curriculum that superintendent Ed Longfield calls "amazingly rich," but this fall saw the introduction of a program that has reached into all corners of the arts community. For his administration, it was a question of regarding class time as a variable, not a constant, when it came to arts education.
"Maybe a 7-to-3 school day doesn't work for some kids — they run out of time or options — so let's come up with an alternative approach to make sure that every person who really wants a creative arts experience can have it," he says of the process that led his district to partner with Pikes Peak Studio and the Manitou Arts Academy, as well as the Conservatory, for after-school instruction in dance, theater, piano and more. "If time's the biggest barrier, eliminate that restraint, and expand time by using different ways to think about it. If you really work with people, sometimes it can be cost-effective, too."
Meanwhile, other educational entities are outsourcing classes and seeking outside funding for their in-house arts curricula. The Downtown Rotary Club helps fund District 11's arts program by partnering with local artists, Imagination Celebration and the Conservatory in the Butterfly Project (artsandfriends.org), an annual philanthropy event now in its third year. Odyssey Elementary, in Falcon District 49, also partners with Imagination Celebration (as well as the Children's Chorale and Bemis School of Art), though their partnership focuses on student programs. By contrast, their fundraising takes the form of a yearly student artwork sale.
Odyssey and Evans International Elementary, where students get involved in film and radio thanks to a teacher's ties to a Springs-based production company, stand out in the Falcon district, as do the community-integrated programs of the da Vinci Academy and the Academic Arts Academy within Academy School District 20.
In District 11, Andy King, the band director at Wasson High School, is collaborating with local events promoter (and former Wasson student) Dane Pearce on a Dec. 4 concert to benefit the school band program. Another portion of the proceeds will go to fund an alumna's voyage to Tanzania — where she plans to do arts-education volunteer work.
All this, if anything, attests to the importance that influential people still attach to arts education in Colorado Springs public schools. As the 2008 Colorado Visual and Performing Arts Education Survey points out, "without mandates, school and district leadership must believe in arts education's value in order for it to be robust, consistent, and high quality."
"I can't really speak to knowing we've been able to fill this niche because XYZ number of dollars have been reduced in the public school system," says Weise. "What I can say is that there [are] visionary leaders out there that are really understanding the importance of arts, and this is something that we've been able to provide."