What a Difference an Arts Environment Makes: One Mother Celebrates a Welcome Move

I wrote this post for my blog The Art of Learning Fun.

My daughter made a fresh start yesterday–fourth grade at a new school. I had heard good things about this school, but had no idea how perfect a fit it would be for her–and me–until we visited the campus recently.

It’s amazing what difference an arts-rich environment makes. If only I’d known how much it would matter sooner. Now, let me just say for the record, I’m all for academic achievement. But I’m passionately opposed to academic achievement at the expense of a child’s spirit. This personal story, I hope, illustrates my position and why I’m so ardent in fighting for the arts and creative expression in classrooms across this country.

My daughter has spent the last four years–Kindergarten through third grade, in a school that boasts an “A” rating. And it warrants that–academically. However, I found that because of its sole focus on academic excellence, it has created an antiseptic environment: no diversity, cold faculty, and a miserable arts program. The music teacher is prohibited from using the piano in his cramped portable.

My daughter’s spirit died due to the lack of creative expression and bullying she received from children and shaming teachers who, I have to wonder, may have done so out of a lack of creative outlet fueled by boredom, creative envy, or both. There seemed to be no room for different drum beats or drummers in this school’s environment. While it fully embraces the dictates of “no child left behind,” I think on many levels, my daughter–and others like her–were left behind. My heart bleeds for those different drummers who are still there and who may face another year of suffering.

In striking contrast, while walking the campus of her new school we were greeted by colorful murals painted by current and former students, hallways lined with framed artwork, and well-tended garden patches planted by students and tended to by dedicated faculty over the summer. The office staff, rather than acting as if we were intruding, were warm and welcoming.

The school has an auditorium that has been the heart of the school since 1926. (The school itself is on a list of historic places). Standing in an aisle of this truly awesome space, I imagined plays, musicals and holiday concerts performed by at least three student generations. Unlike at her old school, the cafeteria is a separate entity. No more watching PTA and student presentations from uncomfortable bench-lined tables.

But it was the visual art and music building that sold us both. The visual arts lab has no less than seven sinks, and every wall is lined with supplies, racks and former students’ masterpieces. The teacher pointed out a state-of-the-art multimedia projector, with which she plans to share the works of the masters as well as local artists and the young aspiring artists in her classes.

The music room has a listening lab, a wall of shelves full of rhythm sticks, maracas, triangles and other instruments–a piano and an organ. The cavernous room holds ample room to move, set up risers and host a student symphony.

The media center is just as impressive. While furnished with computer stations and state-of-the-art multimedia setup, it has something I think is essential to fostering a love of reading and self-directed learning:  Comfy couches and chairs in which to curl up and enjoy a good book.

This is NOT an arts, charter or private school. Nor is my daughter a special needs child. The new school  is a public school in Pinellas County, Florida. And I applaud them. They get it. And it shows in the faculty, the students I met, and the atmosphere they’ve created. Kudos to you, Safety Harbor Elementary. Both Savannah and I look forward to a fantastic year.

Epilogue:  Within weeks of her first year at Safety Harbor Elementary School, Savannah had made friends she’s stayed in touch with for 15 years–even after moving out of the area to attend high school. At her fifth grade awards ceremony, she received recognition for achievements across a variety of disciplines. A teacher recognized her innate talent and recommended her for the gifted program, which she remained in through middle school.  Her love of music prompted her to pursue her passion at a high school magnet program specializing in symphonic music.  She is an honors student with nearly 10 AP credits and has been recruited by a slew of universities. I have no doubt she will be a productive member of society. 

I don’t think any of this would have happened had it not been for the rich environment and inspired instruction she received at Safety Harbor.

Banner image by Hans Braxmeier.


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