Put the arts back in our schools

This is National Arts in Education Week — so here are three things you ought to know about arts education today in Florida’s high schools.

• Great news: Arts education has been proven to boost student performance across the board. The results are in — and they show that if you want successful students, you want the arts in the schools.

• Good news: More and more students in Florida are getting the benefit of arts education. Enrollment is up.

• Unfortunately, not enough students are currently enrolled in arts courses. In too many schools across the country, the arts are still being treated as an add-on.

National Arts in Education Week is the perfect time for parents, educators and public officials to get together and rally to put the arts back into schools.

There is much we can do, and much that is already being done. I want to talk about that. But first, in case you’re skeptical, here are some numbers:

They’re based on a study by Steven N. Kelly of Florida State University, who recently tracked two huge groups of Florida students through their high-school careers, from the ninth through the 12th grades. Kelly analyzed Florida Department of Education data on more than 380,000 students —and what he found was stunning.

Students who took at least four arts credits in high school had cumulative grade-point averages that were 16-percent higher than those of students who received no arts courses. Their graduation rate was 20 percent higher — 90 percent, compared to 70 percent. In fact, they were only one-fifth as likely to drop out. Most impressive of all, these results hold true for all students in Florida, no matter their economic level or ethnic background.

Want to see a 30-point jump in SAT math scores among students who qualify for lunch benefits at school, and about a 50-point jump in verbal SAT scores? Add music, visual arts or theater to the school day.

So why don’t we make the arts a part of every kid’s high-school experience? Can’t we do better than that for our young people?

Fortunately, the answer is yes. Organizations like the National Art Education Association, the National Associations of Schools of Music, Dance and Theater, the National Guild for Community Arts Education, Americans for the Arts, and my own group, the National YoungArts Foundation, are bringing people the news about the benefits of arts education — and public officials including Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, long-time arts supporter and 2014 National Superintendent of the Year, are listening.

Most of the events this week involve the brilliantly talented young people who have gone through our YoungArts program, which provides them with life-changing experiences with renowned mentors, access to scholarships, national recognition and other opportunities to help ensure that they are inspired to pursue careers in the arts.

These are people who have trained strenuously for careers as dancers and instrumentalists, actors and filmmakers, visual artists, singers, and writers — and so they are different from the average student who might take one arts course a year in high school.

But a ninth grader doesn’t need to dream of being tomorrow’s Joshua Bell, the Grammy-Award winning violinist, to benefit from exposure to the arts. Nor should it be necessary to sneak the arts into the curriculum — a snatch of music here, a dab of painting there — in support of the subjects on which students are tested, and tested, and tested again.

It’s the exposure to arts education that spurs the creative thinking that is so necessary today in all fields — not just the arts. We know that the arts are important subjects in and of themselves, for all students. They help to make every kid more attentive, self-disciplined, articulate and collaborative.

So all of us at YoungArts thank Mayor Regalado who declared Monday YoungArts Awareness Day. We thank Superintendent Carvalho and our colleagues in Florida and throughout the country for stepping forward to make the case for arts education.

And we urge all of our fellow citizens to get involved. There’s great news to share during National Arts in Education Week.

Now, we have to act on it.

Paul T. Lehr is president and CEO of the National YoungArts Foundation.