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Family Arts: Why children should be exposed to the arts

Published: Saturday, Jan. 7 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

“If we’re looking at developing future audience or even future artists, we really need to reach kids, because that’s when that kind of magic is sparked in creative minds,” said Margaret Hunt, director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.

Beverly Hawkins, symphony education manager at Utah Symphony-Utah Opera, agreed.

“Just as we want them to be aware of their academic options, their spiritual options, their athletic options in life, we want them to also be aware of and explore the artistic side of life.”

Speak with anyone in the field of art education, and they’ll quickly list ways that arts in schools can enhance education or provide ideas to the kids about future career options. But art, they believe, just has a meaningful impact on life in general.

“They are a source of beauty and richness in life,” said Paula Fowler, director of education and community outreach for USUO. “People have known that for centuries, right?”

“I think it makes us better, more thoughtful, more caring human beings if we really grasp everything we can from the arts experiences that are available,” she continued.

But, Hunt explained, some have more opportunity than others. Some parents can send their kids to dance lessons, instrument lessons or theater lessons.

“The reality is that not all parents can afford that,” she said.

And that’s where arts in the schools come in.

Much is being done to maintain that effort through the Utah State Board of Education, primarily through the Professional Outreach Program in the School, an organization that includes Ballet West, Utah Symphony-Utah Opera, Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater, Repertory Dance Theatre, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Springville Museum of Art, the Utah Museum of Fine Art, Children’s Dance Theatre, and Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“I feel like they’re absolutely aware,” said Vanessa Ballam, director of education and performer at Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, about state legislators and the board of education. “I mean, they’re huge cheerleaders of all of these programs too. They know exactly what the benefits are to the students that participate.”

In a survey of school educators and administrators across Utah, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming commissioned by the Western States Arts Federation, those surveyed were asked if they believed their district treated the arts as core curriculum. In Utah, 65 percent answered “yes” — more than any other neighboring state.

The same study, however, examined the amount of high-quality arts instruction — which it defined as ongoing instruction by a certified specialist meeting state and/or national arts standards. Twenty-one percent of Utah schools were listed in the “none of the above” category. That’s 54,000 students who didn’t receive any quality arts instruction.

“We have a strong emphasis on the arts here. It’s a little bit of a curiosity that we’ve lost footing (in education),” Hunt said.

In an accompanying study by the same group breaking down Utah’s arts education more specifically, researchers found that Utah fared well in secondary school arts education, but lagged behind most in elementary schools.

For example, the average music specialist-to-student ratio in elementary schools is 1 to 895.

“When I was in elementary school, every elementary classroom had a piano in it,” Hunt said. “You don’t see that anymore. I think part of it is that the demands on teachers have become so robust.”

Lynne Larson, director of education for Repertory Dance Theatre, agreed, saying that school curriculum today is very focused on testing and, though tested material is also important, arts education shows children “how that part of you is just as important as the part of you that needs to learn specific facts and be tested on things — that they’re equal parts.”

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