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St. Pete lawmakers push bills to boost arts in Florida schools

The legislation proposes creation of the Florida Seal of Fine Arts Program, starting in the fall.

ST. PETERSBURG — Two local lawmakers on Tuesday announced bills that would establish a special program for highly skilled art students in Florida starting next school year.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ben Diamond and Sen. Darryl Rouson, calls for creation of the Florida Seal of Fine Arts Program. The lawmakers, both Democrats from St. Petersburg, say the program would recognize and encourage student investment in the visual and performing arts, which are economic drivers locally and throughout the state.

Educators and community members gathered at the Salvador Dalí Museum to hear the news. They faced Tampa Bay beneath the building’s iconic geodesic glass as music students from Gibbs High School sang from a sunlit staircase.

Rouson, Diamond and others spoke about the importance of arts education.

“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create,” Rouson said, quoting former President Barack Obama. He called support for the arts “vital” and said the program would push Florida students to join the state’s “ever-growing community of artists.”

The seal would be awarded to those who graduate from high school having completed at least four year-long courses in dance, music, theater or the visual arts with a grade of B or higher; participated in at least two fine arts-related extracurricular activities; and logged at least 20 hours of community service related to the arts, making a presentation on their experiences.

An insignia would be placed on diplomas for those students, the bills state, and the designation would be included on their transcripts.

Diamond spoke about the pressure in schools surrounding testing and traditional education pathways. The seal helps “stand up for the idea that there’s so much more to an education ... than can be determined by how you do on a fill-in-a-bubble test,” he said.

He called for those in attendance to advocate for creativity in schools. Then, like Rouson, he referenced a speech by a former president — John F. Kennedy’s eulogy for poet Robert Frost in 1963.

“A nation that dismisses the importance of the arts invites the fate of having nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope,” Diamond said, quoting Kennedy. “When we all see the importance of arts education, we all understand how hopeful we can be when we make a meaningful commitment to the arts.”

Jeanne Reynolds, director of performing arts for Pinellas County Schools who helped draft the bills, said data shows students in the arts perform better at school overall.

“That child that might not have been coming (to school) starts to come ... you get them engaged,” she said. “Kids find a home, find a place, find a voice.”

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego praised the legislation and thanked Rouson and Diamond for their support of arts programs. He said the School Board had been discussing creating a similar designation for local students when, with the lawmakers’ help, the idea gained traction as a statewide concept.

“We said why not for the entire state?” Grego recalled. “Why not send the message from Pinellas County as leaders in the arts that this is important for the entire state of Florida?"