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Why Funding The Arts In Schools Matters

WP_20140801_006The other night I was sitting in the auditorium at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens. Actually, technically, I was sitting in the Tony Bennett Concert Hall. And Tony Bennett himself was also sitting in the Tony Bennett Concert Hall, with his wife, Susan Benedetto.

The two of them had founded the school and named it in honor of Tony’s late friend, Frank Sinatra. Their foundation, Exploring The Arts, helps fund the high school, as well as the summer program my son was participating in, the Summer Arts Institute. That’s what we were all there to see: the culmination of a little over three weeks of intensive work by NYC public school kids.

I was having a bad day. A fight with my husband, a ton of stuff to do around the house, and a bunch of work deadlines were weighing on my mind. As much as I love seeing my son play flute (and I really, really do), I didn’t want to be there in that beautiful concert hall for three hours watching other people’s kids do their thing as well. I was very cranky.

I tried to post this update to Facebook while I was waiting for the show to start:

At Jake’s performance for the Summer Arts Institute (otherwise known as why he’s not at sleep-away camp). He’s performing in the band. I’ll get to see him play for about 20 minutes in the beginning, and then that’s it. The rest of the time it will be other people’s kids. I wish I could get excited about this, because I really do like to watch him play. But I just can’t get excited about the other two hours and forty minutes.

I couldn’t get it to post. There was no reception in that giant, gorgeous concert hall. And it’s a good thing too, because three hours later I was eating those words.

I watched public school kids singing and dancing and playing their hearts out. I saw movie shorts made by budding filmmakers. I heard voices that could put a Met diva to shame and saw dance moves that were incredible. I saw what those kids had been working on. I saw how much they loved what they were doing.

The Summer Arts Institute is taught by NYC Public School faculty members, with help from guest artists. The SAI has partnerships with NYC institutions like the Tribeca Film Institute and the Theater for a New Audience. There is no tuition for this amazing summer program, and it’s very selective, with kids entering 8th-12th grades auditioning to get a spot each year. What these kids get to experience is amazing.

But what about the other kids, the ones who haven’t discovered their talents and passions yet? And what about the kids who DO have a passion but don’t have an outlet for it because their school got rid of the drama club and chorus in favor of test prep?

How can kids discover what they’re passionate about if they don’t get to try different activities on at school? My own son had zero interest in the flue until his middle school music teacher told him to try it. And now he’s obsessed, wanting to major in flute through high school and college and on to a career as a musician.

How many kids won’t discover their love of dance, their talent for musical theater, their passion for creating gorgeous drawings, their ability to hit the high notes? The kids I saw were passionate and in love with what they were doing. Boredom is the gateway to trouble, but these kids will not be bored. They’ll be in rehearsal studios and out on shoots and memorizing lines and going to cast parties.

Even though most of them probably will not go on to careers in the arts, these kids will make amazing memories and lifelong friends because of these activities. They’ll learn skills and discipline that will translate to other areas of their lives. They’ll be interested, and they’ll be interesting.

Before the performance we, the parents of these amazing kids, were asked for a favor: if we liked the program, would we please write a letter letting the people in charge know? Well, I’m doing one better: I’m letting all of you know, and sending the people in charge a link.

The Summer Arts Institute is an amazing opportunity, but it is available for only a small group of kids, and for only one month out of twelve. How amazing would it be if every kid in the NYC Public School system had access to enough arts programs to find their passion? How many kids would put in the work in their other classes in exchange for the privilege of being in the band or dancing in the spring showcase?

How many flames could be ignited? How much trouble could be avoided?

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