Imagine a school where math is explored through music, where a science lesson means kayaking in Galveston looking at turtles and birds followed by learning to draw them, where social studies class means singing and where language arts is brought to life by actors reciting lines that students wrote.
Rickey Polidore, teacher at Woodson K-8, shared this vision in a call-to-action speech encouraging everyone to get involved in arts education.
While indulging in the robust and earthy zapateado and festive colorful costumes of the Compañia Folklorica Alegria Mexicana at the House of Blues Tuesday night, grown “children” played with the interactive SMART Board adding glasses and a sophisticated goatee to the “Mona Lisa” and flowing lines to Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with Straw Hat”. All in celebration of Houston’s unprecedented partnership among 16 major professional arts organizations and eight school districts.
There is something about Houston’s spirit that fosters entrepreneurship, synergetic collaboration and resourceful determination. Perhaps it’s the unforgiving heat combined with the gentle southern charm that turns strangers into neighbors, neighbors into friends and friends into family.
It’s in this spirit that Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All was born.
In an effort to address the needs of the educational community as it continues to strive to provide learning opportunities aligned with the challenges of the new creative millennia, Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All delivers a unique support service to facilitate and simplify dialogue, at the core, between teachers and artists.
“Houston has a seemingly immeasurable amount of high quality educational arts programming, both for students and teachers,” Rick Ghinelli, director of performing and visual arts at Spring ISD, explains.
But with an overwhelming amount of options, educational opportunities, both in art and core academic curriculum were missed, partly due to information fragmented in a myriad of different sources. With Houston’s array of world renowned arts organizations, availability of quality programs was not the problem. Ease of access to what was available was the culprit.
“Every year, we would be reintroduced to individual arts groups," Ghinelli says. "We would walk out with a pile of stuff and never really had time to sift through all the information.”
Ghinelli believes that the arts are essential for children’s development.
"We have to prepare them for life and for those that come from lower economic households, having arts exposure is very critical,” he says.
Patrick Paris, fine arts coordinator at Conroe ISD saw a similar problem and envisioned a more efficient mechanism to distribute information to teachers, principals, administrators and parents.
“The arts brings the core curriculum to life,” Paris explains. “I have a passion for bringing these programs to allow students to experience creativity in every course of study.”
With a vision of a single portal with a centralized searchable database, a steering committee representing school districts and arts organizations was formed to research, study and develop an efficient and optimized system.
Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All, operating under Young Audiences of Houston (YAH), launched its website, allowing educators to search through and schedule 300 programs presented by about 250 artists and arts organizations classified by arts discipline, grade level, curricular connections including at-risk, special needs and bilingual offerings.
Programs presented on the site are required to have a curriculum connections guide allowing both art and core academic teachers the ability to utilize material presented as an access point into a variety of different learning goals and objectives, encouraging learning to extend beyond the classroom experience.
YAH currently works with a roster of 78 teaching artists and arts organizations presenting over 2,200 educational programs yearly. Providing the logistical support for Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All is an organic expansion of their services.
“We hope to expand the numbers of schools we serve,” Joe Angel Babb, director of education and community engagement at the Alley Theatre, explains. “There has been a shift from money to time being the biggest obstacle. Teachers have interest and we are trying to save them time.”
What started 10 years ago in a selected number of schools through a grant by the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation, this new proactive approach has the potential of creating a full interactive collaboration, going beyond just the vendor and client relationship between schools and arts organizations.
“We studied similar models in Dallas and Kansas city,” Todd Frazier, executive director of YAH, recalls. “We took what was best from each and optimized them to fit Houston’s vast and diverse territory. We also have an additional challenge in that our largest school district, Houston ISD, is decentralized.”
YAH is part of a larger network of arts-in-education organizations committed to arts education, and its national chapter awarded a $15,000 grant through the Young Audiences Affiliate Development Fund to support the project.
“Once thought to be only a dream, this exciting new initiative has become a reality through the hard work, determination and the visionary leadership of the Houston education and cultural community,” Jan Norman, national director, education, research & professional development, states.
But the launch of the website is just the beginning.
“Phase two,” Frazier envisions, “has very exciting growth potential. Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All has the ability to expand its reach, help schools increase financial support by providing grant writing assistance, facilitate quantitative research to validate best practices in arts education while deepening the quality of relationships between arts organizations and educators."
A 2011 Houston Arts Partners Annual Conference is already in its planning stages, intending to continue active dialogue and to support collaborations.
It seems that most collaborative partnerships are created when money is on the table.
“We have lots of avenues to seek funds,” Frazier says. “Having Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All in place can make finding support from principals, county regions, government agencies and foundations much easier and streamlined.”
Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All also has the potential to increase national foundation support through increased visibility showing a strong solidarity between all members.
But getting everyone on the negotiating table was not an easy task, especially with something so new and unprecedented in Houston.
“We had to remove the financial component and concentrate solely on the mission,” Frazier explains. “It was clear that we needed a new way to think about the partnership. Rather than to get sidetracked in the beginning by money concerns, we focused on potential and content.”
“Together, you have unselfishly put children’s needs first and taken a major step in assuring equity and access to the benefits of quality arts education for all children and youth in the Greater Houston Area,” Norman adds. “This is an impressive example of cooperative leadership that will galvanize the arts and education community and dramatically increase the impact and effectiveness of how children learn in and through the arts.”
It’s all about the children. Ensuring they grow up perfecting the skills needed to thrive in a creative and global economy.