Doing Better at Doing Good

N.C. needs to lead in arts education

July 7, 2012 

When it comes to arts education, North Carolina has a proud history of leading the pack.

A half-century ago, the administration of Gov. Terry Sanford was preparing to launch the N.C. School of the Arts, which opened in Winston-Salem in 1963 as the nation’s first public arts conservatory. In the decades since, it has consistently attracted and developed first-class artistic talent.

Today, there’s growing enthusiasm and an urgent need to build on that heritage – and more fully unleash the creative potential of a new generation of students.

In April, a statewide Arts Education Commission, appointed last year by the General Assembly, issued a report that highlights the impact of the arts on creativity and innovation, both key drivers for economic growth and thriving communities.

Across the state, the commission found, some encouraging models for arts education do exist. In Chatham County schools, for example, all elementary school students take arts classes. In Cumberland County, about two-thirds of high school students select arts courses. Pitt County schools partner closely with East Carolina University to deliver arts training to students.

But, overall, arts education is simply not a priority in this state. On average, schools employ just one arts educator for every 275 students, according to the commission’s report. And just five of the state’s 100 county school systems require students to take art classes. In a world in which innovation is often driven directly by creativity – Apple being a prominent example – we’re selling ourselves short.

The biggest obstacles to increasing involvement in arts education: funding, facilities – such as studios and performance areas – and “perceptions that arts education should not be a priority,” the commission report said. In Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, for instance, many high school students avoid arts classes to focus on core requirements and other classes that provide a greater boost to their grade point average.

State legislators have reacted to the report with a flurry of bills that would enhance arts education. But several bills introduced during this summer’s short session of the General Assembly, including proposals to require an arts credit for high school graduation, stalled. Another bill, which requires elementary school teachers to have the necessary training to integrate the arts into the teaching of writing, reading and math, awaits Gov. Perdue’s signature.

Several major studies over the past two decades have shown that studying the arts helps kids learn – and nurtures the critical thinking skills they’ll need later on to help tackle our state’s biggest challenges.

According to Americans for the Arts, young people who devote significant time to the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. They are three times more likely to win an award for school attendance.

Young artists perform community service more than four times as often as peers. Steady exposure to the arts has also been shown to have measurable impact on at-risk youth, deterring behavior problems and raising academic performance.

And then there’s the power of the arts to unlock creativity in the business and social sectors. Out in the mountains of Western North Carolina, entrepreneur Rob Pulleyn doesn’t need any statistics to convince him of that.

“The arts teach kids to create their own problems and then solve them,” says Pulleyn, a board member of the N.C. Arts Council. “Presented with a blank piece of paper, what will you do?”

Presented with a murky future after college, Pulleyn first tried his hand at documentary filmmaking. It didn’t work out, so he started making tapestries instead. A small newsletter he launched about creating contemporary work in fiber grew into FiberArts magazine. He ran it for 30 years, also founding and leading Asheville-based Lark Books, which specializes in craft and art books. About 10 years ago, he sold his stake in both ventures to Barnes & Noble. His latest project: rehabbing an abandoned high school in Marshall into a suite of artist studios.

Pulleyn credits the mindset of experimentation and persistence he developed as an artist for much of his business success. “The arts inform a sense of entrepreneurial skill,” Pulleyn says. “They show I can make something out of nothing if I’m passionate enough. I don’t have to fit into someone else’s structure.”

According to the national Arts Education Partnership, 26 states require at least one arts credit for high school graduation. Almost none of them are in the Southeast. So North Carolina has a chance to lead in our region by passing a bill that mandates a minimum of arts instruction. It’s not exactly the grand vision that inspired the N.C. School of the Arts, but it’s an important first step toward giving the arts their due – and better preparing our state for the future.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Ventures, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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