I recently participated in the New Community Visions Initiative in Oklahoma City. I came away from that event filled with hope and inspiration after a day of working side by side with many intelligent and empowering people: educators, government officials, private industry leaders, cultural organization heads, and foundation leaders. We looked at how we see the arts and culture playing a strong role in building a healthier, more vibrant, and more equitable community over the next ten to fifteen years.
We were encouraged and guided in thoughtful conversations about what we wanted to see in our towns and schools. We systematically defined the people, the resources, and the roadmap to move us toward that New Community Vision. We shared stories, both of successes and failures, as we clarified our steps and sought inclusive, creative projects and plans. Along the way, we were reminded that the road is long and will require persistence, faith, and importantly, creativity in order to arrive at our destination.
That’s all true. But this is also true: we have a lot of what we need, right now, to make a significant difference for all students in all schools – today. Not in ten years. Yes, the road is long and never-ending, but there are amazing, restorative attractions along the way that provide joy and support in the present.
It is my belief that WE CANNOT WAIT TEN YEARS TO DETERMINE IF WE ARE ON THE RIGHT PATH. Here are my Top Five Assertions, or common understandings, that underscore the value of arts to learning and why I believe it is immoral, unethical, and most importantly, decidedly unnecessary to delay their use in all schools, everywhere, starting now.
1. We know what a good school looks like.
In Oklahoma A+ Schools® we often ask groups of adults to tell us their ideas of the attributes of a good school. We list those attributes and sort them into the A+ Essentials™ framework, which is the foundational set of eight commitments that make up an A+ school. I have personally conducted this exercise with groups in all kinds of communities from city to rural, across state lines, and in other countries. The outcomes are strikingly similar, regardless of the community in which the question is asked. Adults around the world want similar things for their beloved children, including a safe environment, attention to individual gifts and needs, rigorous curriculum, and caring adults. The arts are always part of the picture. Always. We do not have to start with a blank page when it comes to what we want in our schools. Those who have gone before us have left clear evidence of what a school must provide to its recipients.
2. We know that students with high levels of arts learning do better, across the board than those without arts learning.
Whether we consult definitive studies from scholars like Dr. James Catterall or simply ask at our local schools for examples, it is clear that students with arts backgrounds outperform non-arts students and go on to become fully participating members of society.
3. Together, we are better.
Each time I am part of a group that meets around a common task or goal, I come away with renewed assurance of the power of a collaborative, like-minded set of individuals to sharpen each other’s ideas, enrich and enlighten the action, and arrive at a manageable distribution of next steps. Singly, we must continue to develop our individual expertise and field of influence, but collectively, we can change the world.
4. Together, we are better but we are not clairvoyant.
By this, I mean that there is nothing inherently magical about working in a group. In fact, humans crave order and purpose and design, and without those things, a group can simply be a kinder way to say “chaos.” I believe that the existence of a common framework is one of the keys to the long-term success of A+ Schools across two decades. We work best within a framework that defines the work, builds a common vocabulary around it, and allows for individual input and ownership as the work progresses. It is important that a community adopt a common frame of reference and a trusting relationship in the leadership that is part of the group’s action plan.
5. Long-term goals are not a substitute for immediate action.
And here is our call to action. For my part, personally and professionally, when I look into the eyes of a child in a school and understand the unlimited creative potential within that soul, I feel sure that the end game is not ten years out. It is for each of us, within our own sphere of influence, to become the advocate for putting the arts into the picture in the schools within our reach, using the four points above. We understand that we are committing for the long haul while not shirking the duty to become effective advocates for helping our communities think, plan, and behave more creatively. Today.