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Education

StateImpact Florida: Why Arts Education is Important

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Students who are struggling in school take fewer art classes than their peers in Florida. And arts education advocates are concerned that high-stakes testing creates obstacles for would-be artists. A proposed bill would make schools more accountable for their arts programming.

The students from Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High—DASH—are on a bus ride to Art Basel and Design Miami—two of the giant international art shows that descend on South Florida every December.

Right now, they seem like a slightly off-key version of the television teens on Glee, but chaperone and architecture teacher Eric Hankin says once they get in front of the art.

"You won’t be able to tell the difference between our students and the people who come from around the world", said Dash. "Because they will be so integrated into those people and looking at it and talking about it intellectually."

Sure enough, once inside the fair, student Allison Rojas zeros in on a portrait of a woman in a sari.

"She uses very bold lines as you can see", commented Rojas. "Very fleshy paintings in your face. She has a lot more variety in her paintings, too."

DASH is an arts magnet, and consistently one of the country’s highest ranked public schools, so this field trip is like an ultra chic career day. It’s a unique opportunity for these students—especially as so many of their peers don’t get this kind of exposure.

"We really want a school report, like a school report card", said Dr. Kathleen Sanz.

Sanz is president and CEO of the The Florida Center for Fine Arts Education. She’s supporting a bill that’s been introduced to the Florida House and Senate that would require schools to report arts access the same way they report information like graduation rates and demographics.

Sanz’ organization analyzed a statewide database of all the courses Florida students take – and found that the more arts classes a student enrolls in, the more likely they are to take the SAT and score well on the FCAT.

Florida currently doesn’t publish statistics on arts enrollment by school. Sanz thinks it should be easier to see information about a school’s arts program:

"We know that fine arts coursework enhances engagement and ultimately achievement", said Sanz. 

Years of research show that kids who study fine arts develop all sorts of secondary benefits like better self discipline and collaboration skills. And as Miami-Dade’s superintendent Alberto Carvahlo recently pointed out at an event for art philanthropists, sometimes arts are why kids come to school.

"Even though I taught physics, chemistry and calculus, I never saw one of my students rush into my class because he was dying to solve yet another algebraic equation", Carvahlo said. "But I saw other children including my own daughter skip breakfast and run out of the house because she did not want to miss that violin performance or practice."

Part of the issue, say educators, is that in Florida, students who don’t pass the FCAT in reading or math are required to take intensive remedial courses. In high school, those courses count as electives. Which means kids who are struggling academically, have fewer chances to take arts classes.

Dr. Craig Collins is dean of Southeastern University’s College of Communications, Languages, and the Arts. He’s studied the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing on arts enrollment in Florida.

"Some of those courses that students come to school because they are able to make social connections and they are successful, then they are denied the opportunity to take those courses", said Collins.

After the field trip, DASH principal Dr. Stacey Mancuso gives a tour of the school, which is located in the heart of Miami’s design district. She opens a back door of the school onto a courtyard of a retail center flanked with high-end galleries. There’s a Maserati parked in the middle and a pricey coffee and wine bar packed with shoppers.

"Do they go home to this every day", Mancuso asked. "No. Many of our kids go home to a one-bed apartment with their whole family living in it. It’s important for them to work in these showrooms and make that decision if it’s for them."

Which is exactly the sort of reason why arts education advocates want to begin tracking who has access to these opportunities.