Want more Picassos? Then give kids more arts education

Studies show children exposed to the arts early generally do better on tests later.
Studies show children exposed to the arts early generally do better on tests later. Arts for Learning

March marks the celebration of Arts Education Month, a time for educators, policymakers and citizens to come together to discuss the arts and their effect on the lives of children and youth across the country and in South Florida.

Art is our very first language. It provides us with the ability to create, identify solutions and formulate meaning of the world we live in. Time and time again, research has shown that children and youth who are exposed to the arts score higher on standardized tests, matriculate and graduate at higher rates, become more creative problem-solvers and engaged global citizens. We also know the arts are capable of uniting communities through shared artistic and cultural experiences, even in times of destitution.

In spite of all these positives, too many of our community’s youngest citizens are not able to experience or create art. The reality is that the arts and their transformative powers are undervalued — and underfunded. Currently, many children are not ready to begin school at age 5 and older youth are not equipped with the academic, cognitive, social and emotional skills necessary for college, work or adulthood that are often attributed to exposure to the arts. This is even more prevalent among children and youth of low socioeconomic status or with special needs.

In the early years, at a national level, K-5 students are receiving on average 45 minutes of arts education weekly and fewer elementary schools are offering visual arts and music classes than a decade ago. The deficit is even greater in middle and high school: A U.S. Department of Education study shows that more than 51 percent of teachers said that there is less instructional time and fewer resources allocated to the arts today, with nearly 800,000 secondary school students not receiving musical/arts instruction at school.

A world-class education includes the arts and kids need more of it. We are fortunate that Miami-Dade County Public Schools has strongly supported the arts as best as it can given budget deficits and increased standardized testing, but it simply can’t go at it alone.

To help fill the void, we rely heavily on community organizations that expose children and youth to the arts and provide enrichment programs before and after school.

For 15 years, Arts for Learning has served children, teachers and families throughout our community with robust visual and performing arts programs. Together, with more than 40 teaching artists, we deliver arts education and programming at approximately 50 schools, preschools and community settings throughout South Florida.

Our diverse and comprehensive programs have enriched more than 117,000 students with critical and creative thinking, communication and problem-solving skills that are essential to long-term personal and professional success.

We are committed to local education and community development, while collaborating to impact arts education funding, practices and policies. To achieve this, we partner with civic leaders, artists, and organizations to advocate and orchestrate arts-based community-building events. Our programs foster a sense of community and inclusiveness.

A current collaboration with Miami-Dade County Public Schools supports students who have recently immigrated. Through a partnership with University of Miami, Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, African Heritage Cultural Arts Center and artist Tarell Alvin McCraney we are launching a Youth Artist Leadership Summer initiative in Liberty City to address under-representation of young women of color in leadership positions in the arts.

Arts Education Month is more than symbolic. It is a reminder of the impact that the arts have on preparing our children to be smart and productive global citizens. Furthermore, it is a call to action to our decision-makers to ensure the arts are not just extracurricular, but part of a holistic, well-rounded education.

I urge South Floridians to rally together and celebrate Arts Education Month by making a contribution to a local organization that helps support arts education and programming – helping to enhance the quality-of-life for tomorrow’s leaders through the arts.

Shiela Womble is executive director of Arts for Learning, a South-Florida based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing learning through the arts.