Arts education usually means kids with crayons and paper, right? Not necessarily. In fact, in one fourth-grade class, arts education is choreographing a scene from the novel Holes. In another school, it’s a boat tour of Chicago architecture. And in still another, it’s painting a five-panel ceramic tile mural with a professional artist.
Perhaps this is not the fine arts education you remember. That’s because these programs were not part of the regular curriculum. They were "extras"—assemblies, field trips and residencies—paid for by parent-teacher associations, principal discretionary funds and grants.
These programs are great, particularly when they are in addition to a quality arts curriculum.
But in many schools, the parent-supported arts programs are it.
In fact, 62 percent of Illinois school districts rely on outside funding sources to support their in-school arts programs, according to a recent study by Illinois Creates, a statewide coalition of education, business and arts leaders advocating for more arts in schools. In the Chicago Public Schools, the figure is 74 percent.
The report also says one-fifth of Illinois elementary students get no arts in school. Those who do are getting an average of 40 minutes a week, according to a survey of state principals and superintendents.
Yet, there is nearly universal agreement that the arts are important.
A 2002 report called "Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development" by the Arts Education Partnership looked at 62 studies on arts in education. It concluded that children who get arts instruction have greater academic achievement and social development, including language skills and reading comprehension. An arts education also reinforces focus and concentration, expression, persistence, imagination, creativity and "inclinations to tackle problems with zeal."
Parents know this to be true. In June, a Harris Poll released by Americans for the Arts found 93 percent of Americans agree the arts are vital to a well-rounded education. More than half rated the importance of arts a "10" on a scale of one to 10.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act defines the arts as a core subject. Yet, there are no testing requirements or mandates for the arts. Therefore, these programs are vulnerable to cuts. So if kids are going to get what they need, it’s often up to parents to raise the money.
But art programs are not the only education extra in need of money. So, even while parents raise more and more money for schools, only about 20 percent of it supports arts programs, says Tracy Butzko, an Evanston mom whose company, Encouragement Press, publishes a monthly e-mail newsletter called "Fundraising for Schools."
The question is, what is the best way to raise money for these school extras? The answer depends on your school, your community and the volunteers willing to do the work. Here are three options—selling things, throwing a big event and applying for grants—that have worked for Chicago-area schools.
This is the old standard—selling gift wrap, flowers, candy, books, magazine subscriptions and more. Parents and students have been selling stuff to their friends, neighbors and families for decades to support a variety of projects. At Ivy Hall School in Buffalo Grove, each year the PTO raises about $25,000. Of that, $6,000 supplements arts programming.
The school has an established arts program, so this money helps bring in authors, hold assemblies and conduct workshops.
In some cases, the programs are too expensive, so Ivy Hall teams up with other schools to reduce the cost. This works particularly well with artists who have travel and lodging expenses.
"We find arts so important to the children," says Susie Feldman, co-president of the Ivy Hall PTO. "But it’s very expensive."
The Ivy Hall PTO members host a book fair and sell gift wrap, entertainment books and student lunches from Domino’s, Burger King, Culver’s and local fave Weiner Take All. "I think a lot of PTOs aren’t raising the money they used to," observes Feldman, "but we’ve never had to cut back on other PTO programs to have extra arts."
Butzko says selling things is a great way for schools with lower-income families to raise money. Families who might not be able to write a check themselves can sell. "They get out there and sell to everyone they know to support their kids."
The key is to find a product that is different—or one people really need. Schools can buy gift cards at a discount and sell them at full value, pocketing the difference. So, parents buy cards for retailers they already patronize—a $100 card for Dominick’s grocery stores, for example—and the school gets part of the money.
The big event
Randy Steinmeyer, president of the PTO at Chicago’s Mark Skinner Classical magnet school, says, "I have enough wrapping paper."
Students at his school, which serves primarily lower- to upper-middle-class families, stopped selling last year when a single fundraising art auction netted $20,000. This effort is the brainchild of a parent-teacher group, Gallery 111, a committee of the PTO. It is charged with raising funds for more school arts programs. The committee sought donations of everything—food, wine, party space—and asked any artist with a connection to the school or neighborhood to donate a piece for the auction.
The school budget pays for "half a music teacher," but uses the PTO money and grants to bring in artists, poets and musicians, says Jen Christainsen, a second-grade teacher.
The PTA Cultural Arts Committee in Riverside School District 96 also holds a major fundraiser every other year—a silent auction with donations from parents and local businesses. The PTA raises about $14,000 each time.
Before the auction, "We had nothing extra," says Dahlia Lietuvninkas, Riverside mom of a sixth-grader. Her committee initially raised money to bring in an artist-in-residence. "People got hooked on the artist residencies and art activities," she says.
Her advice for making that first, big-expense arts program a success? "Make it something parents can see and be involved in. Every one of our events got everyone involved. The kids work together and the parents work together, too."
Going for grants
Perhaps the least well-known but oldest way to raise money is through grants from foundations, organizations and corporations.
However, Susan Linn, a psychologist at Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston and author of Consuming Kids, cautions against schools using corporate money.
"People think this money is free, but corporate sponsorship typically requires quid pro quo," she warns. Linn says she sympathizes with schools that have to choose between having very little arts education and pursuing corporate money. But she is unequivocal about the negative effects of the money on students. "People need to understand that corporate sponsorship of programs is selling the hearts and minds of children." The message is that everything, even their own artwork, is for sale.
Sandy Anast, principal at Chicago’s George Rogers Clark school, bristles at the suggestion. "I don’t push the corporation’s products," she says. "Probably the students aren’t that aware of where the money comes from. The children come up to me and say, ‘Can we have the dancers come?’ and I think, ‘You know, we do have to pay for that.’ "
"Even the purist nonprofit National Public Radio is underwritten by corporations," says Steinmeyer of Skinner school. "Money needs to be raised for the things kids need. I have no problem asking for what I need."
At District 118 schools in Palos Park and Palos Heights, the parent-faculty association represents three schools so its fundraising prowess is tripled. "We benefit from cost savings for assemblies and save on man/womanpower by not duplicating jobs," says President Jeanne Johnson.
Whether your child’s school has a great arts program or needs more money to make it better, it’s clear the onus is increasingly on the parents and individual schools to supplement the arts education a district provides.
Holly Dykes, who heads elementary education at Chiaravalle Montessori in Evanston, says it’s worth it because a good arts education teaches kids the power of diversity, community, cultural history, society, reflection and other skills. "Art is the one place where you can express what you see and think, what’s inside you, and no one can say it is wrong."
Both federal and state laws say arts are an important component of education, but neither requires that it be taught in school.
The federal No Child Left Behind law defines the arts as a core subject area, but it requires only that students be tested on their math, reading and science skills. In Illinois, a law passed in 1985 says the arts are a fundamental learning area for public school students, but the Illinois School Code does not require a specific amount of arts instruction time.
Without testing mandates from the feds or instruction mandates from the state, schools faced with budget constraints, pressure to perform on standardized tests and too little time in the classroom struggle to devote time to arts instruction, according to Julie E. Adrianopoli, public policy director for the Illinois Arts Alliance.
The arts advocacy organization wants Illinois to require a set amount of arts instruction in kindergarten through eighth grade. "We really believe that in order to ensure every student has an equal opportunity, a requirement must be in place to hold schools accountable," she says.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich included $2 million for arts education in his last budget. That won’t go far in a state with 2 million school children but, Adrianopoli says, it’s a symbolic victory.
Martha Carlson is a writer, editor and the mom of Lucia, Eve and Harry. Cindy Richards is senior editor and travel editor for Chicago Parent and the mom of Evan and Tess.