By Tracy Meza
In a time when the arts are struggling to survive as a subject in grade schools around the country, one theater, speech and debate coach brings the issue back to its basics.
Jason Paris has been the Cherokee High School theater director and speech and debate coach for the past 12 years, and this year he can add instructor of history to his list of subjects. Paris said he feels lucky to teach in an incredibly supportive school and community. Paris went on to discuss why he feels that other fine arts teachers are not so lucky. “The trouble we have now is that there’s this tension in education that’s probably always been there, but it feels, at least since No Child Left Behind and the testing regime, which we’re still wrestling with, that those subject areas that are easy to measure objectively, through an end-of-the-year test, take precedence,” Paris said.
Educators are forgetting to focus on the value the arts bring to a child’s education and society as a whole.
“If you look, historically, at all the great moments in the history of education, when things really leapt forward in terms of Western civilization, when were they?” Paris asked. “The golden age of Greece, everyone knew how to paint, sculpt or play the lyre. The arts were the curriculum. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, they were not too shabby as artists. The point is, it blows my mind that, when you look at when humanity really stepped forward, the arts were key.”
Paris said he believes the arts are vital to the development of a complete person. “I would say that if you look at someone who has achieved greatness in any field, the thing that separates them is the human faculty of creativity,” Paris said. “That’s what the arts develop.”
The problem is that not all school districts are as supportive as Paris’ district is on the subject of fine arts. Therefore, over the years, the Northwestern Oklahoma State University Fine Arts program has seen a decline in its student enrollment because of a lack of students to recruit from the state high schools.
High schools in the state of Oklahoma are not required to teach fine arts, and because of that, many high schools are dropping their fine arts programs in order to allot for an increased focus on state testing and budgets. The long-term effects of cutting the fine arts programs in schools are now noticeable in the upper educational intuitions; they are seeing a decline of students within their programs.
Northwestern has already had to make some drastic changes when it comes to its theater degree. For example, until a few years ago, Northwestern offered two separate theater degrees: a bachelor of arts education degree for students interested in going into teaching theater in grade school education programs; and a bachelor of arts degree for students interested in working within the field of theater.
Tamara Brown, chair over the speech/theater degree at Northwestern, spoke about the decline of enrollment in the education degree. “The combination of several factors, some specific to Northwestern and some more general to education in our region of the country, led to low enrollment in the education program,” she said. “Over time, students’ interests shifted from the bachelor of arts education degree to the bachelor of arts degree.”
Brown continued to discuss the trials of Northwestern trying to hold on to the degree. “Multiple people including the [former] School of Arts and Sciences academic dean, Dr. Mike Knedler, attempted to keep the speech and theater education program afloat,” she said. “But, eventually the secondary education degree in speech and theater was suspended.”
Professor Kimberly Weast, fine arts chair at Northwestern, is in charge of recruitment for the fine arts department. She discussed her troubles trying to recruit high school seniors within the state to attend Northwestern. “It is hard to recruit here because many places in Oklahoma have cut their fine arts program,” she said. “So there are few students to recruit.”
Paris has witnessed the schools struggle and rectification first hand to keep the arts in place. “We cut music several years ago, but we’ve brought it back now,” he said. “The school board leveled the extra-duty stipend of all extra-curricular teachers, so I make the same amount as theater director and speech coach as the football coach.”
Oklahoma grade schools’ standards include visual arts and music through grade 12. However, the schools are only required to teach fine arts as a subject through the eighth grade, as stated in the standardized testing guide for Oklahoma school districts. The fine arts assessment as per law reads as follows: “Each school district is required to administer to each student in the school district in grades three through eight an assessment designed to assess the student in the fine arts area in which the student has received instruction.”
Oklahoma has several programs in place to assist schools with keeping fine arts programs in place in their schools, including the Oklahoma Arts Council and the A+ program, both of which offer detailed artistic curriculum for the schools. However, even with these programs in place, it seems as though schools are still struggling to keep their fine arts programs afloat.
According to the Oklahoma Gazette, following years of inconsistent arts and music funding through the A+ program, Oklahoma City Public Schools are looking for ways to redistribute funds in a more equitable and efficient manner.
The changes coming over the next year could result in decreased funding for school art staffing and the removal of some A+ programs, district officials told the Oklahoma Gazette.
“When it came to what schools received through A+, it was all over the place,” Aurora Lora, associate superintendent of student achievement and accountability, told the Gazette about the arts integration program currently in 15 Oklahoma City schools. “But any reductions [in funding] will only come if that school was already getting more than its equitable share.”
The A+ program and the Oklahoma Arts Council programs both attempt to fund the schools arts programs. The Oklahoma Arts Council website states that all K-12 public and private, non-religious schools can apply for small grant support for schools to support eligible arts education programs.
According to okaplus.org, the A+ network is supported by both public and private dollars, with all professional development and other supports free to participating schools. In the latest budget, it was at $125,000. Schools participating in the A+ network in Oklahoma follow an essential curriculum consisting of: arts, experiential learning, multiple intelligences, enriched assessment, collaboration, infrastructure and climate.
Therefore, the question remains, with these programs in place for the fine arts programs to remain in schools, why are the state’s upper educational intuitions still seeing a decline in student’s involvement in the arts programs? Karsten Longhurst, director of choral studies at Northwestern, gives his theory as to why this is happening. “Over the past 20 years or so, I have seen the arts tend to get crowded out in schools largely due to the rising cost of college and the availability of college credit courses in high schools,” he said. “I see parents making decisions for students to take all of the concurrent enrollment and AP classes they can so they can save time and money in college. Obviously, when it comes down to a student taking an elective class or a class that they would have to pay for in college, the electives seem to be a lower priority.”
However, the problem doesn’t just lie with the parents; students are hearing it from everywhere. “Students not only hear such rhetoric from their parents, but also from their school counselors, administrators and some teachers too,” Longhurst said. “The elective arts classes then tend to get discontinued because of low enrollment.”
Nevertheless, one cannot deny the problems a theater teacher like Paris faces when the society that runs a school system no longer believes in the importance of the arts. “There’s an emphasis in education on math and science,” said Paris. “And the way I know that is because if I were a math and science teacher, my student loans would be forgiven in five years or something, but, because I’m a theater director, I’ll be paying until, you know, I die. I get why. We live in a time when technology will increasingly drive the economy. We need scientists, engineers and mathematicians. The trouble with that is that it completely ignores how our brains work.”
Paris then goes on to describe the importance of brain theory. “It seems to me, at least, that the fine arts are vital to the healthy development of the whole brain,” he said. “If you think of it, or frame it as left brain versus right brain, the entire education system right now is geared toward teaching the left hemisphere. That’s important, but what about, you know, the entire other half of the brain?”