Arts vital to students’ successful futures

Published: October 24, 2011 8:41 AM
By Tome Bone
Arts vital to students’ successful futures
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
ATHENS — Reading, writing and arithmetic are among the “basics” required in public education, but the arts have an important place for the nation’s future as well, according to a state education official who visited southern West Virginia over the weekend.

The challenges of a very complex world “are going to require people who have extraordinary creative capacities to solve those problems,” said John A. “Jack” Deskins, arts coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education in Charleston.

“If all we’re doing is teaching them to read and figure, then we’re not maximizing our greatest natural resource, which is our students. ... We need to treat students as individuals; we need to recognize their humanity.”

He visited Concord University for the annual conference of the West Virginia Art Education Association that concluded on Saturday.

The former Beckley resident is a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from West Virginia University. He taught music at Beckley Stratton School and at Shady Spring High School before taking his current job a little more than a year ago.

He said the arts have the active support of state superintendent of schools Jorea Marple, who took over the top spot in March. “Dr. Marple speaks everywhere on the importance of arts education,” he said.

Deskins said, “I think that West Virginia students have all of the imaginative and creative abilities that students in any other state do. ... One of the things we do know about the arts is, students from lower socio-economic status thrive when they’re given opportunities in the arts as well.”

“Having said that, we do have a number of districts that do, increasingly, narrow the curriculum, to my chagrin.”

Education is no longer about preparing for “a very specific work task,” Deskins said. “We’re educating them to live in a very complex and changing world, where they have to adapt and they have to maximize their creative capacities.”

The arts also helps people get more value from their leisure time once they get off work, Deskins contended.

The status of arts education in West Virginia overall is “difficult to say, for a number of reasons,” Deskins said. “In some ways, I would say there are things that are very definitely better.” He pointed to the development of statewide standards for teaching skills and content in such classes.

He said roughly 47 percent of the state’s high school students take at least one arts credit each year. A credit can be earned in one semester on a high school “block schedule,” or perhaps a year of study for non-block schools.

One arts credit is required to graduate from high school, with limited exceptions, Deskins said.

“In the middle and elementary schools, theoretically, a student is required to have a visual art and a music [class] every year.” He said an exception in middle school is to condense arts classes into a more concentrated time frame.

“A lot of folks though, would point, and I think correctly so, to a narrowing of the curriculum,” he said. “It’s very easy to say ... this is probably due to what was very well intentioned with ‘No Child Left Behind,’ and that is, that we close the achievement gap. But really it predates that.”

“There was no great outcry from people when it was suggested that we narrow the curriculum that way.”

“We do not have music and art teachers in every single school in West Virginia, which is very distressing to me. When that’s the case, then the classroom teacher is [expected] to give instruction in music or art — but many of them have limited professional preparation in those subjects ... so those students suffer.”

Some schools have problems finding teachers in the arts because of the pay, he said.

“West Virginia is currently 47th in the nation in teacher pay, which is not a good thing, and must be remedied if we’re going to make those changes,” he said.

“Some of our rural communities have administrators who are committed to arts education,” he said. He used Mingo County and the school in Hannan in Mason County as examples.

He said there are “pockets” of thriving arts programs in the state, often in higher-populated areas like the Kanawha Valley, Wheeling and the Eastern Panhandle.

He also said that organizations such as the state art educators “are the single most vital element in professional development and advocacy for our teachers.”

Through eras of narrowing education, he said, these groups “kept the torch burning” about the importance of the arts. “Those folks have kept the conversation alive.”

“They’ve also raised the bar, significantly, as to what it means to be an arts educator in the United States. ... They are the authors of our national standards in arts education.”

Another role of these associations is to “provide content-rich professional development.”

Participants at the art educators’ conference last weekend could choose from hands-on sessions dealing with stained glass, fabric dyeing, “flip video” cameras, linoleum block prints, Chinese lanterns, watercolor painting on rice paper and fashioning shoe sculptures from clay.

To improve the teaching of arts, he said, requires people outside of the classroom to advocate for it, he said.

“Very often, we’re not insistent that schools deliver the kind of rigorous arts curriculum that we really think students deserve.”

“Community members have a much stronger voice than they imagine that they do,” Deskins said. If parents or grandparents band together and visit the principal’s office to ask for a class or a teacher in the arts to be put into place, “that becomes very hard to ignore, 15 or 30 parents who are insistent about it.”

“If we truly want to see a shift in arts education in our state, and I hope that we do, I think it’s those folks who are really going to make the difference.”

“The idea of public education is that we want those for everybody’s children, not just for people of means, because all of them have absolutely enormous [creative] capacities.

“For our very, very complex world, we need those people. We need all of those children who are going to be the next Steve Jobs, who are going to fill those roles for the future.”