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December 2011

Put the Arts Back in School, for Good


The Teachers of these girls have been trained by Visual Understanding in Education to use art to teach critical thinking skills.

No school wants to flunk its progress report, an assessment largely determined by students’ reading and math scores on standardized tests. Department of Education (DoE) “report cards” determine a school’s community standing, desirability, principal bonuses—and in some cases, whether it is shut down.

In an underfunded school system, math and reading are prioritized at the expense of the arts, civics, and social studies. Test-prep classes replace drama or world history. Musical instruments go unused because the teacher retired and was not replaced. Many schools don’t have art rooms at all.

The arts are an essential part of learning, especially for tomorrow’s jobs that demand creative thinking. “The arts help people learn how to think critically and independently come up with ideas,” says Kerry McCarthy, program officer at The Trust. “They also help children develop problem-solving skills. But more important, the arts are an expression of our common humanity and our culture.”

Museums and arts groups work with public schools to bring song, dance, theater, and visual arts to City classrooms. But they need to develop a more systemic approach to working with the DoE, designated school-support organizations, and principals—and The Trust is helping them do just that. Grants totaling $485,000 will help eight arts groups lead programs that involve all the necessary players. Our hope is that this participation will foster commitment to reintegrating arts into the school curriculum. Katherine Damkohler, executive director of Education Through Music says: “Research shows us that children who have access to the arts not only perform better in school, but in life.” With a grant of $90,000, the group will teach 3,900 students how to read music, understand motifs and musical styles, and perform.


Elementary school kids make mosaics while learning about other cultures in Staten Island Children's Museum workshops at their schools.

Assisted by a $30,000 grant, educators from the Staten Island Children’s Museum will use arts and crafts to teach social studies to 1,500 students on the North Shore. Activities include mosaic, puppet, and mask making that integrate traditional folklore and learning about global cultures. Addy Manipella, director of education at the Museum, reinforces the importance of teaching children art and social studies simultaneously: “That’s what the arts help do. You learn something in context because life is lived in context. Everything in life is related to everything else.”

With a $40,000 grant, ArtsConnection is teaching 330 English language learners using playwriting, storytelling, and creative dramatics. Deputy director of education for ArtsConnection, Carol Morgan, says that students who initially enter the program “can’t use English as they would their native tongue. Having multiple ways to express themselves helps them open up and communicate complex ideas.”

Other groups improving arts education for needy kids:

  • Brooklyn Arts Council, $75,000 to provide folk arts instruction in four elementary schools in Bushwick.
  • Harlem School of the Arts, $50,000 to provide instruction in music and African drumming in five elementary schools in Harlem and the South Bronx.
  • Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, $30,000 to provide arts instruction and teacher training at three schools in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; Harlem; and Flushing, Queens.
  • Museum of Arts and Design, $50,000 to provide arts instruction for suspended students in alternative learning centers in Harlem, Clinton, and Lower Manhattan.
  • Teachers and Writers Collaborative, $90,000 to provide creative writing instruction at eight middle schools in the Bronx and Queens.
  • Visual Understanding in Education, $60,000 to train teachers in eight elementary and middle schools to use art to teach critical thinking skills.

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The New York Community Trust is a 501(c)3 public charity.

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