This past Friday and Saturday Juneau welcomed the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA) to the Capital City for its annual meeting. I have the privilege and honor of serving as Chairman of ASCA, and in my almost eight years of service on the Council we had never met in Juneau, somewhat of an anomaly given how rich Juneau is with artistic and cultural opportunities throughout the year.
ASCA met at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, which in addition to being a most welcoming venue, is a perfect example of how Alaskans can take the initiative and dramatically improve quality of life. ASCA oversees a number of great programs, and in the course of the meeting we reviewed budgets, policies, and ways to increase access to artistic opportunities for all Alaskans of every age in every community across the Great Land. While I am obviously predisposed to be fond of the work ASCA does, I have to say that the value and impact of our arts-in-education programs is the most breathtaking in its variety and the positive impacts that follows from the relatively small investment of public and foundation funds in these endeavors.
ASCA’s educational offerings include the immensely popular artists-in-schools residencies, which involve artists going for two-week missions to schools in every corner of the Last Frontier to teach and share art with students and expand teachers’ capacities to use art in the classroom every day after the visiting artist has gone home. All teaching artists must demonstrate a high degree of ability and talent to participate in the program, and recent changes allow only Alaskans on the roster and mandate that all teaching artists be trained periodically in targeted educational techniques above and beyond their artistic field.
Juneau’s teaching artist program is managed by the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council for the Juneau School District, but schools in small locales like Chignik, Gustavus, and Nondalton brought in teaching artists on their own in the past year. Not surprisingly, Juneau has a large number of names on the teaching artist roster, and we can be proud of the talented men and women Juneau sends across Alaska to expand the creative capacity and lifelong potential of young Alaskans.
ASCA supported the founding of the Alaska Arts Education Consortium, which for its eighth year will welcome dozens of teachers from all around Alaska to Juneau for a two-week academy held out at the University of Alaska Southeast. At these academies distinguished artists instruct teachers with no pupils around, and are so successful they’ve expanded to Fairbanks and Kenai.
ASCA’s other educational offerings include the Cultural Collaborations Grants funded by our friends at the Rasmuson Foundation (an institution that makes Alaskans’ lives better in so many ways I won’t even try to enumerate them here). Access grants pay for arts and culture activities during the school day, project grants for afterschool or summertime events, and excursion grants to fund getting kids to performances. Some of my best memories of elementary, junior, and high school were going to theatre, and I fully embrace helping young Alaskans do that today.
Local teachers and school districts do an enormous amount to enrich students’ lives every day in ways not directly supported by ASCA. The Capital City, and indeed all of Alaska, has to be immensely proud of Lorrie Heagy, Alaska’s Teacher of the Year, and we on the State Council were lucky to have this brilliant arts educator come and share some of her work at Glacier Valley Elementary School at our meeting yesterday.
If you haven’t heard of Glacier Valley’s before-school music program, you’re missing out on a huge success story that will bring a smile to your face. Over the past few years kindergarten and now first-grade students, have been coming to school at 7 am to play violin, guitar, and ultimately a full band’s array of instruments. These children are not only learning a specific instrument, but are becoming better readers, writers, mathematicians, overall communicators, and human beings as nascent musicians. Statistics show that these specific students have improved their performance on federally-mandated tests by almost 10 percent.
Glacier Valley’s music programs are funded with a significant amount of locally-raised private money, school district dollars, and federal funds. Without local support for these programs, they would cease to exist, which would be a tragic loss. While elementary arts have fared well in recent school board budget deliberations, at the high schools the visual arts programs are not guaranteed such a bright future. Fewer classes may be available at both high schools, but Thunder Mountain High School is looking at significantly smaller arts opportunities.
It doesn’t make sense to make such great strides forward in encouraging arts in the early years and not follow through with that commitment until graduation. The school board and administrators have difficult decisions to make in budgeting for the coming school year. While state funding is either stable or very modestly increasing, there are no new dollars that make it easy to provide for all needs; choices must be made. From all I have learned about the direct improvements in student behavior and performance, the increased involvement of parents in their children’s education, and the ultimate benefits to society, I hope Juneau will continue to provide the best arts education we possibly can, setting an example for all of our fellow Alaskans from Ketchikan to Barrow.
• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.