Arts education is linked to academic achievement, but does that mean that playing in the high school orchestra or performing in the school play lead to better scores in math or reading? Some studies say yes, some say maybe, some say no. And as pressure to raise math and reading scores increases, arts programming has suffered not just here in Chicago, but throughout American schools.
That is a mistake, because the value and benefit of arts programming extends far beyond this narrow frame. When our children participate in the arts it changes not only their school experience, it changes their lives. Arts use multiple skills and develop a range of abilities, helping kids learn how to develop and communicate their ideas. It helps kids concentrate, think critically, and work as teams—important life skills. For some kids, art is the area where they shine and build their self-esteem; it is what motivates them and keeps them interested in school.
Happily, schools throughout the North River communities are embracing arts and cultural activities to encourage student participation and self-expression, to celebrate and respect diversity, and to bridge cultural divides. Peterson Elementary School—one of the most diverse schools in the city with forty languages spoken at the homes of its students—is a great example. Last week Peterson hosted its annual Unity Through the Arts night to celebrate the cultures of its students and families. I love this night. I love seeing the entire school filled with art displays and art performances. I love seeing excited students pulling their parents across the cafeteria to show off their artwork, and proudly pose for a photo. I love seeing their younger brothers and sisters, not yet attending the school but already completely comfortable there because they come to Unity Night each year to celebrate their older siblings’ artwork and performances, and to create an art project of their own. And I love the feeling of inclusiveness and the opportunity for some of the more quiet kids to shine. As Peterson Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer explains, “Unity Night is about more than the school band or the school play. It is about the hidden gems and individual artists” who are engaging in arts experiences throughout the school. When I see the joy and pride on their faces, it is clear how powerful that experience is.