Why school kids need the arts

I loved my teachers at Van Nuys Junior and Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles — especially in the music department where they taught me discipline and creativity. I vividly recall many of the life lessons I learned in school.

Ms. St. Jean taught music, choir, and square dancing in grade school. Mr. Pontrelli was my orchestra teacher in junior high, a gentle soul who quietly commanded a huge group of aspiring musicians. Mr. Seymour, who taught drama, speech and debate, always stretched us beyond our comfort zone. Ms. Alma Marshall, who headed up the dance and cheerleading department in high school, taught me routines I can still remember.

Paula Abdul Headshot
Source: TurnAround Arts
"I believe that every child deserves to go to school in an environment full of learning, creativity and joy, and to graduate high school with a rich, complete education."

Decades of research have shown that the arts can help students to succeed in school, and in life. Low-income students with high arts participation are five times less likely to drop out of school, four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, and twice as likely to graduate from college as their peers who have received little to no arts education, according to Americans for the Arts. The arts have proven to be an effective learning tool for low-income minority students, helping with language acquisition and catering to different learning styles.

In our nation's high poverty, low performing schools, arts are often the first thing out the door. Rather than recognizing the benefits associated with arts education and integration, school administrators often cut the arts to make more room for standardized state test preparation. This is particularly troubling because the kids who need it the most are getting it the least.

Turnaround Arts, a program founded by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), delivers arts education resources to high-need schools as a strategy to address broader school challenges. My involvement with the program as the Turnaround artist working with students at P.S. 165 Ida Posner in Brooklyn has furthered my belief in the power of arts and music. (Hint: The arts are much more than just fun!)

Strong arts programs in schools not only lead to an increase in student test scores and higher academic achievement, but also improve the school's climate and culture. One of the Turnaround Arts pilot schools, Washington, D.C.'s Savoy Elementary, transformed from a sterile building with white walls into hallways filled with brightly colored banners and murals with student artwork adorning the halls. Students now start their day singing and walking to class surrounded by art. It was the small changes, which made Savoy an environment where students were excited to go everyday and learn.

TurnAround Arts program
Source: John Bannon for AUSL Chicago
TurnAround Arts program

Unfortunately, there are too many schools across our country that are like Savoy was before the Turnaround. In these schools, most people think that the arts are something you bring in AFTER you deal with more pressing problems. They are wrong. The arts are not something beautiful to be given to students when we, or they, can afford it. Arts education can help a struggling school fix its toughest challenges. The arts are not just a flower; they are also a wrench.

Data recently released from the Turnaround Arts program, showed that, on average, schools receiving an infusion of arts education showed a 23 percent improvement in math proficiency, and a 13 percent increase in reading proficiency over three years; as well as reductions of up to 86 percent in student disciplinary issues and sharp increases in attendance.

The arts are important even beyond the school walls, however. A recent research study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that revenue from the arts and culture industries added almost $700 billion to our country's gross domestic product, or over 4 percent of our GDP, while providing almost five million jobs. We live in a creative economy driven by critical thinking and innovation. Depriving our youngest generation of the arts in school is limiting their collective short and long-term opportunities and ultimately handicapping our economy.

I believe that every child deserves to go to school in an environment full of learning, creativity and joy, and to graduate high school with a rich, complete education. With the Elementary and Secondary Education Act currently up for reauthorization, and the arts and music as core subjects again in question, it is crucial to get the word out that the arts are an integral part of a whole, well-rounded education, not an afterthought. Those making these important decisions for our kids, must be reminded that even the country's most challenged schools can and should be transformed into places where we would all want to send our own children.

Every child deserves their own Ms. St. Jean, Mr. Pontrelli, Mr. Seymour and Ms. Alma Marshall to inspire them – to play, to dance, to sing, and to learn who they can truly be.

Commentary by Paula Abdul, a singer, dancer, choreographer and actress who is one of several new artists to join Turnaround Arts, a program that delivers arts education resources to high-need schools as a strategy to address broader school challenges. Follow her on Twitter @PaulaAbdul.