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."