Sharon Dunn

Sharon Dunn

After two decades of budget crises that all but eliminated arts education in New York City’s public schools, these schools are now enjoying unprecedented support. Sharon Dunn, Senior Assistant for the Arts for the New York City Board of Education, talks about the reasons for this renaissance, and the importance of integrating the arts throughout the K-12 curriculum.

As Senior Assistant for the Arts, what is it that you do?

I am the liaison from the Board of Education to the Center for Art Education. This is an organization that was created as part of an Annenberg Foundation Challenge grant to New York City to re-institutionalize arts education in the public schools. We’ve had about 25 years in which the arts were under-funded or de-funded, in response to a series of fiscal crises in the 1970s and again in the ‘80s. By the beginning of the last decade, less than half of the schools in the public school system had arts education. Even within that half, the arts were rarely available to all students. The city was unable to meet the standards for arts education that had been set by the state.

Simultaneous with that was the fact that there was enormous concern over the quality of the schools and the education that we were providing. As the budget crisis took hold and the budgets were cut, class size increased, our achievement scores really declined, our graduation rates declined, and our attendance rates declined.

Last year, Mayor Giuliani announced that he was going to use public money to support arts education. That was in addition to the Annenberg money.

The Mayor actually made this $75 million annual addition to the school budget an annual line item so that it will be available every year as money earmarked for the arts. I wound up becoming the architect of Project ARTS, which is a citywide initiative to put the arts back in the schools. Project ARTS* is an acronym and it stands for Arts Restoration throughout the Schools.

We’re in our fourth year, and we now have an art supervisor or an arts coordinator in every district in the city, and every school in New York City is currently receiving a per capita allotment of between $50 and $60 for each child to enhance the existing arts program, so that every school can provide arts instruction according to state standards.

Why is New York City investing in arts education?

When we went through this crisis in the ‘70s nobody was happy about it. Nobody said “Oh, the arts, we hate it anyway, let’s get rid of it.” What they said was, “Well, you know, they are wonderful, but do they help the kid read or write? Is this going to make a difference? If we lost reading, if we lost math, science or English classes we’d be in trouble. If you can live without dessert, you can live without the arts.”

But we’ve recognized over time that the schools are really not doing well. You have real clear developmental needs of children addressed through arts education, which are often abandoned in pursuit of skill-based instruction. Children need to use their whole bodies to learn. A child’s play is his work. A child’s play is her work. The fact that they are free to look and touch and smell and taste, to get to follow adults around and figure out how things work, to try them themselves – these are crucial aspects of learning. We encourage them to always try things with their own hands to see how they work, to look at the pictures, to get the messages that the world has to send them, so that they can grow and learn. Children are learning every second, by default or by fault, but they are always learning.

In most cases now children come to school, they get to first grade, and sometimes even in kindergarten, they are sat at a desk, a book is put in front of them, and they have to fill out worksheets. There is no context and there is no play or discovery. That’s what the arts can provide. We realize that if you are going to do effective education, you have to do it with the arts, as well as with everything else, or the child is not being fully developed.

There has also been this wonderful turn-around over these five or six years, with a better economy in which the arts industry is flourishing. You have Web development growing, Internet development growing, and it’s relying on artists to design it and to make it viable and competitive in the market place. So the arts have taken a much more prominent role, and there is a lot of enlightened self interest operating here that is making the community at large feel that their arts education has to be revisited.

How is Project ARTS being implemented?

Part of what we did with Project ARTS is restore a sequential program through the high schools, so when students come into ninth grade they must take a basic art and music class, it’s required.

While we are starting with ninth graders in that sequence, the fact is that for children to get maximum benefit in terms of intellectual and physical development, you have to start in early childhood. You have to offer sequential programs that are increasingly challenging as the children get older so that by time they get to high school, they already know they are looking for a school with, for example, a dance program. And they want to study dance or theater or music or art and use that as a springboard for their advanced work.

With Project ARTS, every school and district is responsible for creating a plan to provide instruction in the arts such that all students benefit, K-12.

Should the arts can be integrated into the academic curriculum?

They can and they are and they should be. We’re trying to help schools figure out how to put the arts back when they have so many demands on them, particularly the underachieving schools. You have an issue of a very limited amount of time in any day. To help principals and teachers understand how the arts could be taught, we try to help them see how they can integrate them into the subject areas and have the subject areas be integrated into the arts.

Integration means collaboration across disciplines rather than one person teaching everything. If a good art teacher teaches a good art lesson, then I’m very pleased with that. If the context of that art lesson relates to a period of history that’s studied in social studies, or a series of characters in a piece of literature, or is a scientific inquiry related to botanical drawings or marine life or plant life or anything like that, the art must be strong for its own sake, but the subject matter which can be connected to the art should be equally as strong.

We don’t want integration where you give lip service to art and you are really teaching science. Or you’re giving lip service to science and really teaching art. What we want are teachers who come together and plan curriculum experiences for students that teach them what they need to know in the art world and what they need to know in science. Then they can move up and continue to build up their repertoire of understanding, their knowledge base, the skills that they need to have, the vocabulary that they will experience.

What part do the state’s arts standards play in New York City’s arts education?

There are four standards; the first two deal with the creating, performing and participating in the arts — the doing. There are specialists in the arts who teach to those standards.

The third and fourth standards involve analysis and response to work; aesthetics, dimensions. That teaching happens in the art room, but it could also very easily happen in a history class, in a math class, or in a general class at an elementary level, where you look at art, you talk about it. What’s the subject? What does it relate to? When did it happen? What do we see in here?

Visual thinking in looking at art relates to communication arts — speaking, writing and reading. Likewise, listening to music and hearing the tone and the color in the music and then understanding the cultural dimensions relates to all sorts of social studies.

Most parents question whether the arts can offer a viable future for their children. How would you respond to this?

Actually, there are an amazing number of careers in the arts and arts-related industry. Artists such as actors, dancers, musicians, comedians, photographers, videographers, and others are only the tip of the iceberg. The arts also include all the support industry that goes into creating a CD, or mounting a show in a museum or in a gallery, or staging a play or television series or photography exhibit.

So when people are concerned about whether or not their child is going to find a job in the world of the arts, it’s really a mistake to think that they won’t.

Will they be making a living as a starving artist in a garret? Maybe not. But will they be able to be a web site designer? Absolutely. Will they be able to be an interior designer a landscape architect? A fashion designer? Work in a design environment? There are endless ways that the design industry alone can encompass talented artists.

And we shouldn’t sneeze at the school system, which has many mechanisms of hiring either full or part-time people who want to teach the arts. An artist may want to teach two or three days a week. The school gets what it needs, and the artist has time to do their own work.

How do students benefit from an arts education?

Business Week published a very interesting study on arts education and its impact on business. In it, they detailed the kinds of skills that are important in the business community. Interestingly, if you look into the art classrooms and the music rooms, and the dance and theater rooms, you see those skills being implemented. You see students learning that there is more than one solution to a problem, for example.

When you ask students to create something, and you set perimeters that ask for a very high level of performance, you are challenging them in a very interesting way, asking them for their personal responses. Some kids are very quick to come up with a creative answer, other kids struggle to find a novel way of looking at things. But when they see each other’s responses, they’ve all grown exponentially.

That’s what arts education does, and that aspect of learning has been absent from many students’ discovery and inquiry process for so many years.

Can this kind of approach work with all students?

I have tremendous faith in the capacity of our students. The real issue is developing our teachers to their full capacity. We know that if we don’t give our teachers what they need, our children won’t get what they need. Teachers need to feel supported, be appropriately remunerated, and work in environments where they can truly pay attention to teaching a rich curriculum. They need to get the training they need, which we are very committed to providing — a commitment shared by the central board and every field school in this city.

Is it important for students to know math and science if they want to be artists?

I think they need all the academic subjects, along with a full comprehensive arts education. But do you need to know trigonometry and advanced calculus? I don’t know. I had to take that stuff. Could I do it? Not if my life depended on it! Did I need it as an adult? Not necessarily. But I may discover — which many artists do — that I love math.

If I don’t have math, then I’m doing the same thing as a kid who loves math and doesn’t take any art. Every student is supposed to get everything. That gives them the opportunity to graduate high school, to come out of the public school system, and determine what they are going to pursue.

What would you like to see happen with arts education in New York City over the next few years?

I’d like every school to have the capacity to provide every student with an art education according to the state standards. If we can do that, then our children will come out of our school system truly prepared. They will have been cultivated in the same way that the children who attend private school are cultivated. They would have the same rights and benefits.

Access to an arts education from early on, increasingly challenging up the grades, is a great equalizer. It’s the place where the child who doesn’t necessarily have a command of English can find a way to communicate his ability to the rest of the system. We don’t know the depth or dimension of that student unless we give him another mechanism to express himself. Even if he doesn’t become a dancer or doesn’t become a musician or artist or actor, we can see aspect of this kid other than his little scratchy writing trying to figure out how to translate what’s in his head from one language to another.

If we give that mechanism early on and continually, we will have a very well rounded, more open-minded and productive person graduating from school. I believe that literacy for those students is assured, because they have always had multiple mechanisms to get to the meaning underlying what the teachers are trying to teach them.

That’s what I want to see, and I don’t think there is anybody operating, no matter what side of the fence they are on, who would be opposed to that kind of education.

Thank you.

You’re welcome.




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