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Reflections on the importance of art education

It's written in crayon, and she incorrectly spelled the school superintendent's name.

However, I couldn't be more proud of the letter my 8-year-old daughter and her friends wrote to MaryEllen Elia last fall after her weekly elementary school art class got cut from an hour to 30 minutes.

Dear Mrs. Elea:

I think we should have more ART time.

Could you fix that?

Your friends,

Madelyn, Karly and Hailey

I'm reminded of the letter because on Sunday, the Hillsborough County PTA/PTSA Council will present countywide awards for its annual Reflections art competition at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover. From 2 to 4 p.m., the public can see the works produced by students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The top-rated efforts in each category — dance choreography, film production, literature, musical composition, photography and visual arts — advance to the state competition.

The competition sparked an impressive 1,600 entries in Hillsborough, but maybe there would be more entries if the school district hadn't reduced art classes to once-a-week, 30-minute offerings as part of $34.5 million in budget cuts approved by the School Board last spring.

Interestingly, Colorado PTA president Mary Lou Anderson started Reflections in 1969 because of a concern about the arts being devalued in the school system. Flash forward to 2010, and we're still dealing with those worries.

"Forty years ago, we were entering a difficult economic period and the nation was at war," said Melissa Erickson, president of the Hillsborough PTA/PTSA council. "It was very different, but very similar.

"Like today, there was a lot of talk back then about students being competitive in the sciences, but people don't look at the fact that there's a link between students who excel in the arts and students who excel in science and math. The arts touch every other academic performance."

From a personal perspective, I'm the son of a late art professor, so I'm compelled to let Madelyn's voice be heard and try to ensure that the whole child is being developed.

Same with my boys, who can't augment their football play at Armwood with some acting lessons because the school doesn't have a drama unit.

Elia says she understands, but in a global depression, difficult decisions have to be made.

"For a dedicated teacher, especially one working with the arts, 10 to 15 minutes is a lifetime," Elia said. "But we were able to keep arts in every school, and every child has access to the arts even though it's a shortened time period.

"We wanted to keep the program alive, but in doing that the decision was to cut back on the time."

Erickson also sympathizes with Madelyn's lament but argues that we should have directed her letter toward the state Legislature instead of Elia. Erickson says legislators hold school districts at their mercy with uncertain funding.

"Decisions that school districts make are based on dollars that come from Tallahassee," Erickson said. "There needs to be a dedicated funding source to education for all aspects: the arts, core curriculum, technical education and career education."

In a sense, Reflections aims to highlight such issues. Yes, the arts program aims to enhance — not supplant — arts education. Yet it also serves to remind parents about the importance of art education and that the PTA's mission goes beyond the sale of candles and cookie dough.

Through the state PTA Web site, floridapta.org, you can learn about contacting state legislators and sign up for e-mail alerts about pending bills. It's a way to channel individual concerns into an effective chorus.

One crayon-lettered note from a second-grader might be cute, but one united voice from a group of parents might just sway the Legislature to do all it can to hold education harmless.

That's all I'm saying.

Times staff writer Thomas Marshall contributed to this column.

Reflections on the importance of art education 01/07/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:47pm]
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