Christian Sanchez never got a chance to meet his little brother. His father moved away and took his younger sibling when Sanchez was too young to remember. The experience has prompted the 16-year-old Capital City Public Charter School student to write a monologue — one he will perform next month at the Gala Hispanic Theater in Washington — to express his feelings.
"I wish, someday, I will get to see him," Sanchez said. "If I make it to the top, I will still have him in mind." Theater hasn't just developed Sanchez's ability to cope emotionally with life's challenges, it has also enabled him to improve his writing skills. "This is a very important skill that everybody needs throughout their lives."
Recognizing the work of more than a dozen projects that reach students like Sanchez, first lady Michelle Obama underscored the need to bring arts education to the lives of children from well-to do families and from poor communities. "Every one of us who are here in this room will do whatever it takes to make sure that our own kids get access to sports and music and arts and recreation," she said. "So if it's good enough for our kids, it's good enough for all of our kids, right?"
Honored during the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards on Monday at the White House were the Mariachi Apprentice Program, the New York City Urban Debate League, the Student Historians High School Internship Program, and the AS220 Youth Studio, among others.
Quique Aviles, the program director of the bilingual Washington-based theater program Paso Nuevo/New Step, works with Sanchez and a handful of other students, mostly Latinos. In his program, he said, youngsters between the ages of 13 and 21 learn to reexamine their experiences and "to think in critical ways."
"What would you say if you had five minutes on the stage?" asks Aviles, who started writing and acting as a 17-year-old immigrant from El Salvador. "We go through a process of questioning — what's happening around me? What's happening in the world?"
For many students, the arts educational programs have provided a natural transition to bring to the classroom creative expression, critical thinking, discipline, goal-setting, and teamwork. Arts programs have become even more critical to students of color and lower-income youths, because they give these youngsters an opportunity to explore hidden talents and abilities. According to a recent study, their involvement also improves their prospects of attending higher education.
President Obama has made it a mission to improve arts education as a way to close the achievement gap and energize low-performing schools through the Turnaround Arts initiative, a public-private partnership, among other art-focused programs. At a time when school budgets have fewer resources, some have welcomed these types of initiatives. A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that elementary and high schools in 26 states are receiving less state funding this school year than last.
Persistently high dropout rates, federal and state pressures to raise students' reading and math scores, and shrinking school budgets have pushed educators to a place where they are forced to choose between offering acting and music classes or focusing solely on improving academic scores, some arts-education advocates say.
In the late 1980s, Aviles would come to public schools and teach acting, and for the most part, the teachers and administrators would provide space to engage the students in theater. "Now, we're persona non grata in schools. They see it as a waste of time. They view it as, "˜they're wasting time that could be spent on standardized testing,' " Aviles said glumly. "And they're killing the arts budgets and killing the commitment to the arts."
During the 1990s, nonprofits began to fill the void left by state budget cuts in school districts across the country, offering cultural, academic, and leadership programs to inner and rural communities. When the economic recession began to tighten nonprofit groups' budgets, the children, particularly those from lower-incomes whose parents couldn't afford private ballet, piano, or drawing classes, were left out, said Malissa Shriver, chair of the California Arts Council.
Three or four cycles of students in Los Angeles public schools have gone without having had any arts-education courses. Shriver lamented, "When nonprofits couldn't keep their doors open, kids had nothing."¦ The kids who need it the most, who really need this the most, are getting it the least."
As more research continues to show clearer links between arts education and improved test scores, Shriver asserted, schools administrators and policy makers will see the value of including arts as part of the core curriculum. Deeper involvement in such programs could reduce drop-out rates, she said.
A recent National Endowment for the Arts study has found that lower-income students have higher academic results, college aspirations, and civic participation when they are engaged in the arts for long periods of time. For instance, 74 percent of eighth-graders from poor households who were involved in the arts from kindergarten through elementary school showed higher scores in science and reading scores, according to the study "The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies." High school students who had high levels of arts engagement were more likely say they were headed to college.
What's more, today's employers are looking for skills such as collaboration, innovation, and creativity in their employers, Shriver said, citing a global IBM study of the top 1,709 CEOs. "All of them said the top skill is creativity and innovation," she told The Next America.
"People are starting to see that it's not just a fun thing," she said.
At least one school district has already taken a leap that Shriver hopes other around the country will follow. Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District school board, at 650,000 students the second largest in the nation, unanimously voted to include arts as part of the core curriculum. The vote means that funding for art classes will be restored to pre-2007-08 levels within five years.
On Monday, Michelle Obama acknowledged that many of these nonprofits are still finding success on a shoestring budget. "You see kids who never considered going to college finally saying to themselves, "˜Well, if I can publish my own writing; if I can create my own artwork; if I can get up in front of all these people and perform anywhere, including the East Room of the White House, well, then certainly I can go to college, right?' "
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.