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First Person: A future for the arts in Worcester

By: Dr. Cara Berg Powers

Published July 10, 2019, Telegram & Gazette

Through the hard work of non-profit and community partners like Pow-Wow, stART on the Street, ARTS Worcester, Creative Hub, and the volunteer dedication of the Worcester Arts Council, the City of Worcester is becoming increasingly known for our growing creative economy. The efforts from large institutions to groups of friends and individual artists that are reshaping our city are too vast to enumerate, and that’s great news. According to a recent study from the National Endowment for the Arts and the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Arts contribute 760 billion dollars to our economy, more than even agriculture.

June 25th we got more good news with the approval of new Massachusetts Arts Standards. The new standards, rooted in 10 guiding principles, were developed over a long and thoughtful process with arts educators from across the Commonwealth. I first became aware of the process all the way back in 2014, when I was invited to join the group for evaluation of the National Arts Standards at Worcester Technical High School. Those educators met with one another several more times over the last five years, finally arriving in February of this year with the newly approved standards. With these standards in place, we have the frameworks in place to prepare every kid in the Worcester Public Schools for entry into the growing creative economy.

One of those educators was Creative Hub Worcester Executive Director Laura Marotta, who I asked a little bit more about the importance of these changes. According to Marotta, “Our students in Worcester are incredibly diverse and come from a plethora of backgrounds, families, countries, and environments. The Arts helps students to recognize their value in this world, and creates and sustains healthy communities, both within and outside of school walls.” She says that a big challenge arts educators face is the perception that arts is “extra.” “The biggest challenge for Arts Education is that there is an assumption that there exists a lack of statistical evidence that demonstrates its educational and academic value, despite numerous national studies that have provided this data. As President of the Massachusetts Art Education Association, of which we have over 900 members across the state of Massachusetts who are professionals in public art education, private art education, higher education, museum education, and more, we advocate for the impact of the Arts in many ways.”″

The Department of Education highlights some of the most exciting changes, including a reorganization, new evaluation practices rooted in art critique and development, and the introduction of a new discipline — Media Arts. In Worcester, music, dance and theater are in the Performing Arts Department, and then there is a Visual Arts Department, both full of incredible educators and with strong leadership. If you did not make it out to the Teacher’s Art Show at the Sprinkler Factory this Spring, you missed out! (I have pictures) With the addition of Media Arts, which does not fit neatly into either, the question of how to support its entry into our system will be interesting. In fact, that’s exactly how I found myself, back in 2014, sitting at a table at Worcester Technical Vocational High School with two school librarians- because across the state, very few schools have Media Arts instructors on staff.

The lack of Media Arts education in our schools is something I have been dedicated to for a decade and a half, alongside groups working on legislation to incorporate Media Literacy into our schools. As a Media Arts educator and Executive Director of Transformative Culture Project, I have seen first hand the power of Media Arts to ignite passion for learning in kids of all ages.

Quality Media Arts education gives students early access to one of our most powerful artistic generators- the rapidly changing media, TV and film industry. That’s not the best part though- it also have the power to relate their education to their lives unlike almost any other tool we have, because they are engaging with media constantly. Consider the Kindergarten standard: “Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.” Now imagine 5 year olds using direct texts, videos, and archival interviews to answer questions about how actions of 5 year olds in the past- perhaps the children of the Birmingham Children’s March, or kids growing up before child labor laws, may have lived and how it compares to their own life. 

We’re doing pretty good — In grades K-5, as well as 7 and 8, most kids have access to arts education. But at the high school level, we can do a lot better. Only 50% of our 12th graders, and only about 30% of our 9th, 10th, and 11th graders have access to arts education. Every kid from every quadrant in the city should have access to arts education. It’s not extra. It is core to supporting the overall skills they need to succeed in college and careers. This will take time and resources, of course. But the good news is, there are things we can do right away- we can connect available dual enrollment courses with the standards and increase student enrollment in those programs and our AP Art classes at with Worcester Art Museum. We can provide more integration of arts, including Media Arts into traditional content courses. We can support programs like Creative Hub Worcester’s Spark Arts after school program.

In addition to providing our talented arts educators with the professional development and paid planning time to incorporate these exciting changes, we also should have two goals to bring our District up to the new standards —(1) bring Media Arts into our offerings and (2) get to 100% Arts Access for every kid in the Worcester Public Schools. The good news is, we can do both of these things at the same time, while supporting our classroom teachers and our growing creative economy. Through partnerships, content integration, and creating aligned courses, we can ensure that Worcester Public School students are ready to lead the 21st century arts endeavors that are putting our city on the map.

Cara Berg Powers is a candidate for the Worcester School Committee

Read the article on the Telegram & Gazette here.

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