Vermont Arts Council

Embracing Advocacy

True story: A Vermont music teacher is ready to return to school when she’s notified by the principal that ensembles have been cut. She calls on her advocates at hand. There are meetings and maybe some confrontation. Within weeks, music is back in the curriculum.

It doesn’t always work like that. Cuts can come at a point that is too late. Supporting the arts in education is ongoing work. So, as you finish shopping for school supplies, learning the idiosyncrasies of the bus route, and adjusting to waking up just a little earlier to deal with lunches, we add one more request. Think arts in schools, and stand ready to get involved.

Take it From Tony

Tony Pietricola, now retired, taught music for 40 years. He was active in the Vermont Music Educators Association (VMEA), holding leadership positions for six years. He was board chair of the now-defunct Vermont Alliance for Arts Education; tenure with that group led him to national work in arts assessment. He’s a musician and fluent in jazz. Evident in his approach, and backed by what is known about musicians’ brains, he can switch between a logical and emotional argument as quickly as he can switch from reading the tune to improvising.

Tony lists assumptions he has heard about arts in education: “You either have talent or you don’t.” “You’ll starve as an artist.” “It just isn’t important.” In response he declares flat out: “Creativity is going to keep you employed in this country.” He makes references to well-roundedness and the transferable skills — toe holds in educational policy.

Guidance, Not Control

The federal government famously enacted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001; it was replaced in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). With the passage of ESSA, lawmakers sought to encourage states to re-establish a well-rounded education – one which includes the arts and humanities. There’s a learning curve. Tony observes that “teachers now are embedded in the math, language, and tests realm,” holdover requirements of NCLB.

Well-rounded leaves room for interpretation at the state level. Vermont’s state board of education includes the arts as one of seven curriculum content areas that all students should be receiving rigorous annual learning opportunities in before they can graduate. No requirements are placed on schools as far as the number of artistic strands (visual arts, theater, music, or other) made available or the number of hours that students should study to meet proficiency requirements. Schools use the National Core Arts Standards to ensure that students demonstrate proficiency in artistic expression.

That’s where Emily Titterton, Vermont Agency of Education’s (AOE) arts content specialist, can help. Her role is to share information and resources and guide arts educators to the important parts of policy such as the Education Quality Standards. Periodically, Emily is contacted when an arts program is in danger of being cut or student contact time with arts teachers is being reduced. She stresses these are local decisions, and there is high variability across the state as to what arts programs look like. The guidepost is always the National Core Arts Standards and proficiency-based graduation requirements based on those standards. She’ll also tie the arts to the transferable skills.

Another strategy? Connect arts to the school’s goals. They have to have them.

IFRs and CIPs

Josh Souliere, the assistant director of education quality reviews at AOE, gave us some information on Integrated Field Reviews and Continuous Improvement Plans. Each Supervisory Union/School District has an field review every three years. From there, Continuous Improvement Plans are developed in each district and submitted to the agency for review.

In the last round, one school included positive statements from staff, students, and parents regarding their arts programs. Another included the fact that some interviewees reported wanting more offerings in the arts. Some mentioned that arts was one of the areas that stood out when it came to flexible pathways or commented that parents and students praise the art-related offerings. These remarks are the voice of arts advocates.

Where to Begin

Tony stresses to teachers: “Be sure to follow the chain of command when dealing with school issues. This means being sure to speak to the principal first. Then you can go on to the superintendent, school board, and public; in that order.” The starting point for citizens is the same. In addition to talking to your principal about the role of the arts in your school, we suggest:

  • looking for ways the arts can support your school in reaching academic and continuous improvement goals. The arts are a powerful way to support social and emotional learning and can contribute to positive learning environments. They are also a great way encourage parental involvement
  • knowing when your school is participating in the Integrated Field Review process. Make sure the arts are represented or a part of the discussion
  • encouraging your administrators to think creatively about the use of federal funds to support arts and arts-integrated programming. More than 90 percent of the school systems in the United States receive some sort of Title I funding. It may be possible to support some programming through Title IVA

None of this is simple, but all of it is worth it. The world needs creative brains.

— The Arts Council is pleased to have Tony Pietricola on our board.

Susan McDowell

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