Thursday, April 21, 2011

'Arts education stimulates their minds'

What else is damaged when schools have to cut cultural programs?

When trumpeter Dallin Johnson took to the field at Arbor View High School last week to perform a stirring "Danny Boy" -- a traditional Irish song usually played to commemmorate a death -- what had begun as a rally for arts education began to feel more like a wake. The gathering was intended to motivate students and parents to contact lawmakers about how cuts in the state budget will decimate arts education in Las Vegas schools. Dozens of music, theater and arts programs (some estimates put the tally at more than 50) are imperiled, and with them the engagement, and sometimes futures, of thousands of students.

"I've been involved in several programs that allowed me to be accepted to the University of Utah. If it wasn't for [the arts] ... I never would have had this opportunity," says Johnson, an Arbor View senior headed for Utah on a music scholarship.

Official estimates say school district leaders could be forced to trim more than $400 million, with a good portion coming from school arts programs, by the time the Legislature wraps up its session in early June. More than arts progams are on the chopping block, of course. In a message on Basic High School's website, Principal David Bechtel notes the impending loss of three English teachers, four instructors of math or science, some Advanced Placement classes and other specialized offerings. Other schools are planning for similar cuts.

But the cuts in arts education in particular could spell trouble for the city's cultural life, at a time when it's seeing some significant traction but is still in many ways in a fragile state. Myron Martin, president of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, cites studies by The Wallace Foundation "showing that arts participation is linked to learning about the arts at an early age (K-12)." A Rand Corp. report concluded that people who experience and are educated about the arts at an early age are likely to enjoy them over the course of their lives. So cuts in school arts programs have implications both for the future pool of creative artists in Las Vegas, and for educated, engaged audiences. "I worry that further cuts could deprive an entire generation of people the opportunity to learn about and be inspired by the arts," Martin says.

"I think that Las Vegas is just beginning to create a culturally oriented population," says Anne Mulford, president of the board of directors of the Contemporary Arts Center. "We're relatively young in terms of our mentality of ourselves as a city, and it takes a mature population to support the arts. If we don't create individuals who appreciate a good play or a painting ... we're hindering our growth as a city."

For those on Southern Nevada's cultural front lines, the insistence of state leaders to save money by forcing cuts to public-school music and theater programs is an economic mistake.

"If we're going to be at the forefront, economically or otherwise, we need to be using arts education to stimulate the creative parts of the brain in students," says Kelly Roth, head of the dance program at the College of Southern Nevada. "Students who are exposed to the arts might not go into it as a career, but arts education stimulates their minds and, in many cases, keeps them in school." The arts certainly played a big part in Roth's education. A high-school dropout, Roth says he only returned to education and earned advanced arts degrees because of his affinity -- and affiliation -- with the arts. Martin tells a similar story, about a fourth-grade field trip: "I got goosebumps going to the performing arts center. This enthusiasm led me to the arts in junior high and high school, and eventually to my much-loved career." John Beane, of Insurgo Theatre, says flatly, "I would not now be doing what I do if Ms. Jackson at Eldorado High School hadn't played Zeffirelli's Hamlet for us in ninth grade."

Already this fiscal year, the school district has been forced to cut more than four dozen arts instructor positions.

Lynne Ricci, choir director at Basic High School, says the one thing that those making further cuts to public-school arts programs don't understand is that the arts stimulate every area of students' minds.

"When it comes to programs like, say, music, they are critical to helping students blossom. What [state lawmakers] don't seem to understand is music is actually every subject: It's math, it's humanities ... it's even physical education as the students learn voice control," she says. (Also, in some cases, a marching-band class counts as a P.E. credit.)

It's not just students and teachers who are concerned. Increasingly, a number of local business owners are ponying up as much cash as they can to help save arts education.

"We've been watching the news, and I have three children in Henderson schools. I've been concerned about state cuts and have felt a little helpless, but I wanted to help make a difference," says Jeff Victor, president of the Fremont Street Experience. To that end, Victor says, the Flightlinez aerial ride on Fremont -- which allows people to slide on cables through the historic gambling district -- will donate a days' proceeds to local arts programs in local schools this month.

It's the least he could do, says Victor. "I've been concerned about the state of the school system because of the budget cuts, and I felt a little helpless. I'm concerned that [in a budget crisis] the arts are the first thing to go."

Victor, who predicts the daylong benefit this month could generate as much as $17,000 for local school arts' education programs, says he believes local businesses like his will have to contribute as much as they can to help offset any state cuts.

"The truth is, money for these programs is not gonna come from the tax base, so they have to come from efforts like this. I'm sure other businesses will do something similar," he says.

That's certainly the hope of local cultural figures, although some of them expressed outrage that policy-makers would use cultural programs to balance the state budget.

"My biggest question for lawmakers is, how can they do this to our kids," says Jennifer Kleven, chair of the exhibition committee for the Contemporary Arts Center. "How can lawmakers make these cuts if it's going to come right back to them if they themselves have children in public schools?"


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