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Arts Education, Already on Rise in Boston, Gets $4 Million Boost

At a time when the news about arts education is usually that it's being cut, officials in Boston had a different message today.

An ambitious public-private effort first launched in 2009 to greatly expand access to quality arts education just got a philanthropic shot in the arm from the Wallace Foundation. The New York City-based grantmaker is committing $4 million over four years to improve and expand the city's Arts Expansion Initiative for public schools.

(The Wallace Foundation also provides financial support to Education Week.)

At a press conference today, city and school officials announced the grant and released new data showing a big increase in arts access for students during the school day. The data indicate that an additional 14,000 students in the Boston school district now have regular access to visual and performing arts instruction, compared with three years ago.

"In Boston, we have defined arts education as part of a quality education for all students," said Superintendent Carol R. Johnson in a press release. "Our focus on expanding high-quality, equitably distributed arts learning opportunities for our young people is a key piece of our agenda to transform our schools."

The Arts Expansion Initiative is a collaboration among a variety of entities, including local (private) funders, the city school district, arts organizations, the mayor's office, and EdVestors, a Boston-based nonprofit organization involved in school improvement efforts. The new Wallace grant comes on top of more than $4 million in commitments from private funders in the city through 2015. In addition, since 2009, the Boston district has provided an additional $2 million each year for arts education.

The Wallace grant will help build capacity in the district to "expand and sustain high-quality arts education for all BPS students through new approaches to arts instruction, curriculum, professional development, partnership coordination, and student and family engagement," the press release says.

The effort in Boston goes against the grain of current momentum around much of the nation, amid tight school budgets, to diminish opportunities for arts learning in schools, said Laura Perille, the executive director of EdVestors, which helped to develop the Arts Expansion Initiative and is playing a lead role in its implementation.

"Boston is bucking the trend nationally," she said in an interview. "Just in the last month or two, we've seen proposals to cut the arts" in some other urban school systems.

The Boston initiative has three core goals:

• Expanding direct instruction in the arts in schools;

• Building the capacity of the school system to support school-based arts programs; and

• Enhancing partnerships between schools and arts groups, as well as higher education institutions.

Perille said that on the issue of access, the goal is no less than ensuring "universal" access to "weekly, yearlong arts education" for students in grades K-8, along with a big increase in access at the high school level.

Today's event took place at Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School, which has seen access to arts education soar since 2009. At that time, just half of students were receiving weekly arts instruction throughout the school year, but now the figure is 96 percent, Perille said. The school now has four full-time arts specialists, and has partnerships with both the Huntington Theater Co., for theater workshops, and the Boston Ballet, which is running a dance program for male students, Perille said.

Beyond increasing arts access, another change driven by the city's Arts Expansion Initiative is annual reporting on access to arts learning in schools.

"In Boston, we created the first-ever systemwide inventory that measures how many kids got what art disciplines by minute in every school," Perille told me. "We publicly publish and document by school, by percentage. We believe in the power of transparency."

You can find out plenty more about the initiative and see recent school-by-school data on arts access here.

Perille said another important dimension of the arts-expansion effort—and one to be supported by the new Wallace grant—is "engaging students and families to build long-term demand for the arts, because what families want and what students want in a choice-driven district is an important part of how schools make decisions."

In fact, plans are under way to create and administer surveys to both students and their families about their preferences in arts education.

"We think this is a critical piece of the strategy," she said of student and family engagement, "to make sure this sticks."

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