You’ve got to have art

Boston initiative aims to show how arts can play a key role in school improvement

In many school districts, the last few years have not been kind to arts education.  Arts are among the first subjects to be cut when budgets are tightened.  But the story here in Boston is very different.

With the distribution of nearly $800,000 in grants this summer, the Boston Public Schools Arts Expansion Initiative marks a significant milestone. From an inauspicious beginning with a $60,000 planning effort in 2008, today this effort is a $10 million, multi-year initiative that is directly impacting more than 14,000 students each year.  This school year, more than 9 of 10 students in Boston elementary and middle grades received weekly, year-long arts instruction, a 22 percent increase since 2009.

Expanding arts education has been possible through a coordinated approach of the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. This collaborative effort includes local funders, the school district and individual schools, arts organizations, and the mayor’s office, facilitated by EdVestors.  Local foundations, including the Barr Foundation, The Boston Foundation, Hunt Alternatives Fund, Klarman Family Foundation, and Linde Family Foundation, have led the way in contributing to a local fund to increase direct arts instruction for students that currently totals more than $4 million in contributions.  At the same time, the Boston public schools have increased public funding for arts teacher positions in the schools by $2 million annually, making this a true public-private partnership. This local effort recently attracted a $4 million dollar investment by the Wallace Foundation in New York to build additional capacity and infrastructure to support expanded arts instruction.  

Why arts education when so many other school-reform efforts are focusing resources on improving outcomes in reading, math, and science?  Collaborators in the Boston initiative view arts expansion as a catalyst for increasing engagement by students and families, improving school climate, and leveraging strategic partnerships with some of the best arts and cultural institutions in the country.

Studies show that when students have arts classes, they are more interested in school generally.  The most recent research to support this premise is a report issued in April by the National Endowment for the Arts, which showed that at-risk youth with a history of intensive arts experiences enjoy better academic outcomes and are more civically engaged than similar students who largely miss out on the arts.

And principals and teachers tell us that there is no better way to bring families into schools than the opportunity to watch their children perform. Students build literacy, math, and science skills more readily if they are engaged and their families are connected to their schools.  Also, when we expose youth to the arts, either through an in-school music teacher or a partnership with a cultural organization, we create another generation of arts consumers and patrons — the season-ticket subscribers of the future.

Grants from the initiative are supporting nearly 50 partnerships at Boston public schools.  These range from theater programs conducted by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project to visual arts brought in by Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts and music production programs by Sociedad Latina.

Meet the Author

Laura Perille

President & CEO, EdVestors
There are dozens of schools and arts partners across the city that will benefit from the continued expansion of arts education.  In the end, it is Boston’s students that will benefit the most.

Laura Perille is executive director of EdVestors.