Arts education important for Alaska's youth

I have the privilege of serving as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA), a state agency which fosters the development for and appreciation of the arts by all Alaskans through education, partnerships, grants, and services. There is a good reason that education is the first in this list, because it possibly the most important of all of ASCA’s forms to Alaskans. Fortunately, ASCA offers a wide a variety of programs which strive to ensure that young Alaskans have access to quality artistic experiences in the classroom at every grade level and in all communities, large or small, urban or rural.

The best known, most established of ASCA’s arts education programs is artists-in-schools, which sends artists into classrooms across Alaska for residencies. The artists come from all manner of disciplines, and include mask-makers, painters, actors, and musicians. The beauty of this system is that it is nimble and allows for a lot of variety, for teachers and students as well as for the visiting artists. While the program was once open to artists from across the country, we have recently closed the roster of teaching artists to Alaskans exclusively. All artist-in-schools teachers must also participate in special training to ensure that they have the didactic as well as the artistic skills to make a meaningful contribution.

Another exciting arts education offered by ASCA is done in conjunction with the Rasmuson Foundation, the shining star of Alaskan philanthropy that does so much to make life better for all on the Last Frontier. The Rasmuson Cultural Collaborations partnership with ASCA includes projects grants for arts activities outside the normal school day, access grants for under two-week arts activities during the school year, and excursion grants to get students to artistic performances away from their school.

Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry memorization and recitation competition begun by our friends at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the federal agency charged with promoting artistic activity for all Americans. Poetry Out Loud is now in its seventh year, and has grown geometrically to include 365,000 students this past year. Thousands of Alaskans students participate at the classroom level, learning poems from an anthology put out by the NEA, and then advance progressively to higher levels of competition. The statewide finals are held in Juneau, and then representatives of each state compete in national finals at the Kennedy Center. This year’s Alaskan winner is Aryeh Lax, a talented young man from Anchorage, who will go to our nation’s capital in May to represent the Great Land. Having heard him recite at the statewide finals in Juneau, I am sure he’ll do a fine job and make all of us proud.

A program that ASCA doesn’t directly run but had a key part in founding is the teacher artist training institutes sponsored by the Alaska Arts Education Consortium. These symposia bring teachers from various Alaskan communities together during the summer for intensive multi-week sessions where educators learn how to incorporate the arts into all subject areas. By using the arts to teach mathematics, science, and other technical fields, it is possible to reach more students and to enhance the amount of knowledge retained by the students. Teachers and their pupils have much more enjoyable learning experiences, and the students perform much better on the standardized tests that are now an inescapable part of our public educational infrastructure.

The research data strongly indicate that arts education yields significant benefits above enhanced academic performance. Students are less likely to be tardy or absent, and they behave better, get into fewer fights, and interact more co-operatively with others. The lifelong benefits of arts education are now being studies more closely, with some encouraging results. The NEA recently released a study entitled, “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” which underscores the importance of arts education. Particularly for youth who are less well-off socially and economically, having access to an arts-rich education early on leads to better academic and civil performance later in life. These improved outcomes include membership in honor societies, graduating from high school, and going on to collegiate education or better-paying employment. Early arts education also leads to higher levels of volunteer activity for various social causes, and participation in the political system.

ASCA remains committed to ensuring that arts education will continue to improve in as many areas of Alaskans’ lives as possible. It is widely accepted that young Alaskans are the greatest resource we have in the Great Land, and thus it is of the utmost importance that we provide artistic and cultural opportunities for those who are our future.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.


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