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The Crucial Role of Arts Education in Delaware

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Signaling rebirth and renewed strength, spring’s arrival coincides perfectly with March for the Arts, a month devoted to recognizing arts education throughout the state. This year, the celebration takes on greater meaning.

As Delaware migrates toward an economy that relies more on entrepreneurs to foster new business rather than one depending on large corporations, the arts will play an increasingly important role, says Guillermina Gonzalez, executive director for the Delaware Arts Alliance—one of the major supporters of March for the Arts.

“You need to have an economy where creativity and innovation are present,” she says, “and for that to happen, you need the arts connected to education.”

 

An arts history lesson

Deb Hansen is education associate for visual and performing arts, gifted and talented programs, and advanced
placement for the state Department of Education. 

This month marks the 14th annual March for the Arts, a mission led by former Delaware state Sen. Dorinda A. Connor, who worked as a music teacher before her time in government. She spearheaded and authored Senate Bill 116, a unique piece of legislation passed in 2003 that stresses the critical place the arts—dance, media arts, music, theater and visual arts—have in creating well-rounded individuals.

“She wanted to have something in perpetuity that would refocus education on the arts in Delaware,” says Deb Hansen, education associate for visual and performing arts, gifted and talented programs, and advanced placement for the Delaware Department of Education, who believes the First State stands alone in having such a law on the books.

Connor went to Hansen as an early ally for March for the Arts. During the first few years, they engaged the State Board of Education and encouraged schools to bus children to Dover for festive choral, band and dance performances for the House and Senate to highlight the arts, Hansen says. 

As time went on, though, it became more difficult to get students out of the classroom due to assessment testing held during the month, so the Delaware Division of the Arts instead initiated and funded a series of videos to raise arts awareness. For example, former first lady Carla Markell introduced one on excellence in the arts and former Gov. Jack Markell opened another about inspiring youth through the arts.

“There’s something unique about the creative arts process that empowers children to realize their potential in whatever they choose to pursue in life,” Jack Markell says in the video. “Studies have shown that youth involvement in the arts stimulates, strengthens and develops the imagination and critical-thinking skills, motivates and engages children in learning, and helps level the field for learning across socioeconomic boundaries.”

In 2016, Markell issued a proclamation during March for the Arts, describing the arts as “an essential element of a complete and well-rounded life,” recognizing that today’s economy requires the workforce to develop and master artistic traits, and calling on all Delawareans to participate in or attend arts-related activities.

Last March, much of the conversation also revolved around the Delaware State Board of Education’s newly adopted arts standards for dance, media arts, music, theater and visual arts, the first fresh set of guidelines in two decades.

The supporters of March for the Arts keep the theme for the month fluid from year to year and look to the current climate for direction, says Sheila Dean Ross, program officer for arts education and accessibility at the Delaware Division of the Arts. “We think, What’s important now?”

 

2017 themes

While changes in the administration at the state and federal levels have left a few questions on target messaging, organizers still can anticipate some hot-button issues and topics, such as evaluating the new arts standards after year one and debunking some common misconceptions.

For one, Hansen wants to clear up the myth that Delaware schools have slashed the arts, unlike many other places across the country.

“If anything, programs are growing,” she notes. “We were fortunate in 2001 to have the State Board of Education reword regulation around content area instruction, including the arts.” 

It mandates that all children in Delaware receive instruction in the arts through sixth grade, and it also requires that every public school in the state have a visual and performing arts program, with the exception of the Groves adult high school program.

“That’s very strong language in place, but I think the challenge is there’s no art police,” Hansen says. “The Delaware Arts Alliance, Delaware Division of the Arts and Department of Education rely on teachers and our cultural partners to keep us informed of the extent of programs across the state, and there are times a principal may not understand a regulation and may choose to make a decision about an arts educator or opportunity for students.”

Another misconception, Hansen says, is that many people don’t often think about the myriad jobs—sometimes tangentially—related to the arts. Someone designed the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and the homes we live in. Ross recalls one recent Delaware student who attended an arts-oriented high school, then went to the Air Force Academy to study aerospace engineering.

“Can you envision a world without the arts?” she says.

Advocacy efforts don’t end on March 31. Concerned citizens can support the arts at the second annual Delaware Arts Advocacy Day on May 4 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Legislative Hall in Dover. 

Last year’s inaugural event focused on the Senate side, so this time, organizers will aim for a presence in the House, says Gonzalez, of the Delaware Arts Alliance. “We will continue to emphasize the importance of the arts in terms of economic development and education. From a broader perspective, they’re all very connected.”

DAA wants people to attend, as well as to spread the word among friends, family, colleagues and, especially, their elected officials.

“Support for the arts and arts education in Delaware is critical, and they can learn more about it at Delaware Arts Advocacy Day,” says Lynn Calder, marketing and development strategist for DAA.

People don’t have to join DAA to participate, but Calder says membership will give them access to tools and activities to be better prepared as an effective arts advocate.

Those not able to attend Delaware Arts Advocacy Day in person can have a voice virtually. DAA plans to stream the event through social media. (Check www.delawareartsalliance.org closer to the event for details.)

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” stresses Ross, of the Delaware Division of the Arts. “People have to understand their concern counts. Parents, educators and the like can let our state legislators know how important the arts are for quality-of-life issues, for better schools and for making well-rounded people. Imagine Delaware being able to set the tone for the country to say we have been able to effectively marry the arts with STEM and see what we have here.”   

For more information on Delaware Arts Advocacy Day, contact DAA operations specialist Jessica Ball at 468-4842 or jball@delawareartsalliance.org.   


Activists to unite for Arts Advocacy Day

On the national stage, arts advocates from across the United States will unite in Washington, D.C., on March 20–21 for the annual Arts Advocacy Day. The two-day event will bring together cultural and civic organizations and grassroots advocates to emphasize the importance of developing strong public policies and appropriating increased public funding for the arts. The Delaware Arts Alliance plans to coordinate and schedule visits with representatives.

For more info, visit www.americansforthearts.org/events/arts-advocacy-day.