Arts Education Alaska Style: Success is in the Partnerships
by Charlotte Fox, Executive Director, Alaska State Council on the Arts
Students from the 2011 Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Photo by Clark Mischler
Back in 2002, when I was just beginning this job and a naive state arts agency director, I made a remark at a statewide public meeting that it was our goal to have the arts as a daily part of every student’s life in Alaska.
I had no idea what I was saying. You can’t imagine the challenges we have in Alaska with education delivery. In a state that's over 550,000 square miles and twice the size of Texas (one of our favorite jokes is that if we cut Alaska in half, Texas would be the third largest state), we have only 14,000 miles of road and only 34% of those roads are paved. An example is the Lower Kuskokwim School District, a district the size of West Virginia, headquartered in Bethel. Of the 27 schools in the district, the majority of them are in outlying villages, reached primarily by small plane. Not many yellow school buses out there!
The reality of my optimistic statement and meeting our arts education goal slowly sunk in. But I’m proud to report that nearly 10 years later we are making great strides because of the partnerships we’ve formed.
We’ve also benefitted from serendipitous timing. In 2003, Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA) helped to create the Alaska Arts Education Consortium, which began providing intensive arts education summer institutes for classroom educators, initially with a major federal Department of Education grant. This summer---2011---was the eighth year of these institutes, and to date more than 600 Alaska educators are taking what they have learned back into the classroom. More important, post-institute surveys each year demonstrate that teachers continue to use those critical teaching techniques daily, reporting increases in student motivation and interest in schooling, improvements in behavior, and the transfer of attitude and knowledge to other subject areas.
Another critical partner has been the Rasmuson Foundation. Through a grant program funded by the foundation and administered by ASCA, we have expanded the traditional Artist in Schools program and added new arts education programs outside the school day.
Because of these initial partnerships, new collaborations and financial support have been received from the Alaska Association of School Boards, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, and the Kennedy Center. These partnerships provide the foundation for educators, teaching artists, and students to have expanded opportunities in the arts, and have fueled expansion both in the number of students affected by direct grants and in the broader reach of arts education activities. Another unique partnership was formed when ASCA had the opportunity to be part of the inaugural NEA Educational Leadership Institute in 2008. The Alaska team we assembled for that institute has been a critical touchstone for me throughout this process.
In 2009 a study sponsored by ASCA (On Thin Ice) revealed that despite 25 years of Artist in School residencies, 73% of Alaska school districts had little or no written arts curriculum. This galvanized the council into providing leadership and advocacy to expand ASCA’s efforts beyond the residencies and into curriculum development.
Also in 2009, ASCA received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for education from the NEA. These funds were directed to a pilot project to lead an innovative, three-year model plan aimed at re-invigorating the arts throughout three rural districts. Called the New Visions Initiative, the overall goal is to increase student access to quality arts instruction, integrated with other academic content and aligned with the district standards.
In the first two years, the three participating districts have developed individual plans that addressed their various needs---lack of arts curriculum, lack of teaching artists, and lack of district infrastructure to support the schools in the district. In addition, they are developing long term arts education plans and participating in the Artist in Schools program.
In addition, one of the participating districts (Bering Strait School District) began employing teaching artists as a part of their summer school program. These artists worked side by side with the classroom teachers. This past summer, the number of sites that include teaching artists was expanded, and final evaluation results indicated that 100% of the teachers agreed that artists should be a part of summer school in the future. One of the most wonderful comments I read from the evaluation report was made by a student who said that “summer school is more fun than summer!” Remember, this is a northern Alaska summer where the sun shines brightly all night long and getting elementary students up in the morning to go to school is a challenge in itself.
Other partners are Alaska’s arts education nonprofits, which deliver arts education programming daily throughout the state. An award-winning example of this is Alaska Arts Southeast, a longtime leader in arts education in the southern panhandle community of Sitka (Alaska’s fourth largest city with 8,000 people). A recent recipient of a major NEA Our Town grant, this organization will be increasing its transformational arts education programming in a newly acquired 20-acre college campus. The campus, a National Historic Landmark, shut its doors four years ago, and was recently gifted to Alaska Arts Southeast to provide a permanent home for the summer arts education school. The Our Town grant provides support for this organization to provide a festival next year, initiating a collaboration to revitalize the campus with a kaleidoscope of arts, cultural heritage, humanities, and natural science activities for summer 2012. This project promises to bring the home community even more accolades as being one of Alaska’s cultural destinations.
Partners who are vital to the success of our program are the Alaska teaching artists on our Teaching Artist Roster, who travel thousands of miles and spend countless hours with teachers and students carrying out the work of our programs. The artists are the cog in our arts education wheel.
Connections and partnerships continue to be made, but we have all realized that the going is slow---sometimes glacial---and that change in school districts has been even slower. However, looking back at where we began 10 years ago, we are confident we will continue to work toward bringing the arts into the life of every Alaskan. Stay tuned!