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Speeches and Writings

The Role of the Arts in a Democratic Culture | Page 5

October 13, 2017: National Association of Schools of Art and Design

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.: President, Spelman College

Though each community was very different and each arts program had to be customized to fit the talents and skills of the principal, the teachers and the   population of students served, there were five basic pillars that each program was required to have.

  1. Leadership and commitment of the principal
  2. Teacher by in and teacher training in the use of the arts to teach subject areas
  3. School willingness to hire art specialists to teach some arts discipline and to establish partnerships with local arts organizations
  4. Parent/community involvement
  5. Ongoing teacher development and training throughout the school year and in the form of an annual teaching summit

Working with the consulting firm of Booz Allen and the University of Chicago, we devised an intensive evaluation process.  In devising their strategies to move from failure to success, schools were required to make improvements on test scores in math, science and reading, improve attendance, record a decline in disciplinary actions, demonstrate improvements in the school’s culture and climate and enhance parent involvement.

Virtually all of the schools showed real progress in those areas and well over half were able to move from failure to success by the end of two years. Based on the success of the pilot, the program expanded to 60 schools, in 15 states, serving over 20,000 students.  Towards the end of the Obama administration, because we could not be sure that whoever was elected would be committed to the program, we moved Turnaround Arts to the Kennedy Center where it is alive and well.  Last week, I chatted with New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl—there is now a Turnaround Arts in NYC—and he enthusiastically described its success in New York.

We know that good schools are the cornerstone to a vision and wisdom of our citizenry and role of the arts in education is so self-evident that it never ceases to surprise me that we still have to argue the case.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that whenever I speak about the arts and its role in anything— re-vitalizing cities, or improving our schools or our democracy, I am always challenged. Art, good art, valuable art, art that should be preserved for generations to come, need not have any utilitarian value at all. I could not agree more.  But I do think that we should be aware that sometimes the arts can’t help themselves. No matter what we think, no matter what role we assign them, the arts rebel. They break into the arch, climb the stairs and declare their independence of whatever we intended them to be, howling with joy at the moon.