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Prov. schools' art budget dwindles

Fourth in a five-part series

On a Friday morning at Trinity Repertory Company in downtown Providence, the professional theater troupe performed a matinee of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." Its audience consisted of over 500 high school students from public schools around the city. Many of the students had already studied the play in workshops put on in their classrooms by Trinity Rep's education program.

But this program, one of a number of education initiatives run through Trinity Rep and other organizations in the city, may be in danger. With funding reduced across all disciplines in public schools, it is unclear how areas like the arts — whose success cannot be measured through standardized tests — will fare in the next round of cuts.


Requirements and reality

The Providence Public School District requires all its schools to offer art classes, wrote Earnest Cox, administrator of fine arts for the Providence School Department, in an e-mail to The Herald. Graduation requirements were amended in 2010 to include a baseline arts competency in the school district's general education standards. The current standards for graduation require one full-year credit under the classification "art and technology."

But members of the arts community still see a lack of dedication to the arts in schools.

Some schools have arts requirements for grades 9-12 but have cut arts programs for lower grade levels, said Tyler Dobrowsky, former education director and current associate artistic director at Trinity Rep. "In Cranston, a lot of (arts) programs have been cut altogether," he added.

Trinity Rep provides free tickets to groups from Providence public schools through outside funding sources like Community Development Block Grants, a federal program that provides funding to cities and towns for housing and community needs.

Though students can easily walk to the theater, saving the cost of renting a bus for field trips, Dobrowsky said such trips are becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to organize. Every year has seen a rise in "the amount of red tape teachers have to go through," said Jordan Butterfield, Trinity Rep education programs manager.

"I think that arts teachers have an incredible ability to do a lot with a little, but the little keeps getting littler," said Caroline Azano, the company's education director.


Painting by numbers

Standardized tests have played a major part in decreasing arts funding, Dobrowsky said. "The last couple of years hasn't been fun," he said.

Specifically, the No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002, emphasizes standardized testing as a way to measure school proficiency. Though President Barack Obama announced the act will soon be replaced, his new Race to the Top initiative also stresses the importance of testing for schools and states to qualify for funding.

Because the benefits of arts education "don't show up in test scores," Dobrowsky said, art is not prioritized when schools and districts are allocating funds.

"Innovation can only happen through creativity and imagination … which is where the arts and arts education play a role in nurturing," wrote Lisa Carnevale, executive director of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts, a lobbying organization, in an e-mail to The Herald. Race to the Top has a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, so these disciplines tend to get more attention, she added.

But these distinctions can be problematic because they de-emphasize the importance of critical thinking skills that are taught through a variety of subjects, Dobrowsky said. "If you want to have a nation of creative thinkers … then you have to allow students to be creative."


A creative pause

"Witness a world devoid of creativity, imagination and thought," reads the website of Culture Stops, an organized effort to "call attention to the deep and widespread cuts, proposed by Congress and the President to federal funding for the arts and humanities."

Last Thursday, Culture Stops organized a number of events in which participants — including performers at AS220 and Trinity Rep, as well as the RISD Museum — stopped work, demonstrating what a world without the arts would be, according to the website.

This is just one example of the community-based efforts that have arisen to combat the decline in arts education and appreciation. While schools struggle to make ends meet, independent programs within and outside of schools are filling in the gaps, Carnevale wrote.

Groups at Brown, arts centers such as Trinity Rep and other community organizations have organized after-school and other independent programs that give school-aged children an outlet for creativity.

Brown Arts Mentoring, a student-led organization run through the Swearer Center for Public Service, offers after-school programs in two Providence elementary schools. These programs include art, dance, music and theater classes and culminate each year with a showcase of student work.

Providence CityArts for Youth, a community group, is primarily an extended-day program but also operates within the school day, said Barbara Wong, the program's executive director.

CityArts focuses on professional development as well as on lightening the burden on teachers, Wong said, adding that public school teachers are "stretched a lot."

Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts lobbies against proposed budget cuts at the state level to the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. "Our position … in terms of moving the needle for arts education has been to support initiatives (such as the funding formula last year) that work to create a healthier environment for education in our state," Carnevale wrote.



Funding levels in next year's budget for school arts programs remain uncertain. "It is too early to have a conversation about what will happen in the arts going forward at this point," Cox wrote. He said he hopes to know more about the budget in April.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 announced his budget in an address to the Rhode Island General Assembly March 8. The budget proposes increasing state aid to schools by $17.1 million, in keeping with the state's funding formula, according to a March 8 article in the Providence Journal.

Mayor Angel Taveras announced a new plan to combat the city's two-year $180 million deficit March 3. It is still unclear whether the budget will target arts education specifically, Carnevale wrote.

"We have had a declining understanding of arts and creativity in our country for some time," she wrote. "We may have lost a sense of (art's) place in our society."

Because funding for the arts has changed from year to year, teachers have not "had a steady understanding of their allotted funding," she added. "This makes it very hard for any community to plan and strategize around their goals."

Though schools have consistently received less funding in the arts over the past several years, non-profit arts organizations continue to receive grants from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and other sources to go into schools and teach arts, Carnevale wrote.

Trinity Rep, for example — which runs after-school and summer programs as well as workshops and field trips during the school day — still hopes to expand its programs through more outside grants, Butterfield said.

Carnevale added that many administrators in the district are distracted by other problems plaguing the education system. "I find superintendents and education leaders wanting arts inside schools," she wrote, "but they are consumed with working to get the whole system healthy."




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