ASC vows to get arts programs back on school stages

For years, every fourth- and fifth-grader in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools went on a field trip to Ovens Auditorium to hear the Charlotte Symphony.

No more.

Children's Theatre of Charlotte used to take a Shakespeare play to every CMS high school every year.

Not now.

Those are just two arts programs that have been dropped as the schools, Mecklenburg County and the Arts & Science Council have been hit by the recession. In the school year that starts Wednesday, there will be $1 million less to expose students to the arts through field trips or through artists sent into schools.

The ASC has vowed to turn that around for 2011-12.

"Taking a stand on education funding," ASC president Scott Provancher told the Observer, "has got to be a priority for us."

The ASC administers the schools' money for arts-education programs put on by cultural groups - such as the orchestra, Children's Theatre and Mint Museum - and by individual artists. It adds money from its own campaigns. This school year, it will have $497,000 to spend - down from $1.6 million before the tailspin.

Proponents of keeping arts programs in schools say they do more than just introduce children to orchestras, plays or paintings. They say the arts help develop children's minds and prepare them to compete in the global economy.

The ASC made that a part of its fundraising appeal in this year's drive. It continued the theme in June by hosting Daniel Pink, author of the best-selling "A Whole New Mind."

Pink told a Knight Theater audience that the arts prepare young people for the jobs of the future. As computers and other technology take over routine tasks, he said, workers will need the skills of observation and big-picture thinking that the arts cultivate.

"The arts," Pink said, "teach the very set of abilities that are most necessary in the economy - the very set of abilities that will define our kids' future in much the same way that the SAT and spreadsheet abilities define our past."

It's 'a big deal'

The ASC used to put arts programs in 95 percent of CMS schools, Provancher says. This year, it can reach 50 percent.

The decline is "a big deal," ASC Board Chair Marc Manly says.

"To (CMS), it probably doesn't make their top 10 list of issues," he says. "They've got bigger issues. ... We saw the decline in funding and feel it's worse than unfortunate."

The arts-education programs are just one of CMS' budget cuts, of course. Teaching jobs in all subjects have been eliminated. CMS has made no across-the-board cuts of arts teachers or arts programs, says Debra Kaclik, a CMS administrator.

Principals faced with limited money have done away with an arts teacher here or a middle-school orchestra there, Kaclik says. She doesn't have systemwide totals.

The ASC isn't trying to reinstate teachers. It's focusing on programs put on by cultural groups and individual artists.

"This will be the least amount of cultural activity that has happened (in CMS) in a long time," Provancher says.

The cultural programs introduce CMS students to the arts - exposing them to the power of orchestral music or the excitement of dance. But they also reinforce the schools' core curriculum.

The Children's Theatre performs dramatizations of stories or books that students read in literature classes, Education Director Valerie Rhymer notes. Actors go into schools and lead workshops that use theater as a vehicle for math or science - or for tackling social issues.

Whether it's youngsters swirling like a tornado or teenagers creating a play about the dangers of fighting, Rhymer says, acting something out is proven to make an impact that a teacher's lecture can't equal.

"It's not something they're just watching or listening to," Rhymer says. "They're participating."

Music, which doesn't use words, can be used to teach writing, says Meg Whalen of the Charlotte Symphony. Until the cuts, the orchestra sent musicians each week into a handful of high-poverty schools.

Besides learning about music and rhythm, the students wrote about what they heard. Their teachers coached them in using active, descriptive words to convey their sensory impressions. Pinewood and Nathaniel Alexander elementary schools got the last installment last year.

Focus on students

Bringing in money for 2011-12 will become an ASC rallying cry, Manly said.

Helping the CMS programs will be a big job for an ASC that already has its hands full. Its last two annual campaigns fell short of pre-recession levels by more than 30 percent.

"Any fundraising is a challenge," Provancher says. "We don't have a utopian view that the money (for CMS programs) will just flow in if we say what the purpose is."

Nevertheless, the ASC will include arts education in the annual drive that starts in January. It's likely, Manly says, to set a goal for money it will apply to its usual purposes - mainly support of cultural groups - and promise to devote anything beyond that to education.

"We think that's something the population here will think is a good cause," Manly said.

The ASC will soon start preparing new ammunition for its appeal: a report laying out which programs would represent the best use of the money.

The ASC has hired consultants to explore which education projects have been most effective and what new ones could serve fresh purposes. The results from the study, which will cost $78,000, will be ready early next year.

"We want to support programs that meet the needs of CMS and the teachers," Provancher says, "rather than just reestablish programs that have existed in the past."

'Rise to the challenge'

Meanwhile, cultural groups are working on their own to raise money for education work. The symphony and Children's Theatre are looking for donors to help revive programs this year.

Opera Carolina hopes to raise $50,000 to take a children's opera to elementary schools, General Director James Meena says. As it is, the company will take "Billy Goats Gruff" - based on a Norwegian folk tale, and teaching kids about how to treat others - on a tour from Eastern North Carolina to Atlanta. Those areas' school districts, arts councils or parent-teacher organizations are footing the bill, he said.

"It would be a tragedy," Meena says, if CMS missed out.

"Either arts groups and the arts community can rise to the challenge," Meena says, "or we can let (arts education) atrophy and go away. ... So we're going to do our damnedest to make sure it stays viable."

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