Denise Davis-Cotton remembers living through the 1960s and ‘70s as a student in Montgomery, Ala., often referred to as the cradle of the civil rights movement. Integration was still new.
She remembers being a second-grader when a teacher at the school she attended asked her to be a part of a play.
“I remember how I loved creating,” she said. “That spirit of teamwork. How I loved working with others in the classroom. I’ve always held on to that moment.”
Then, when she transferred schools, she remembers when a teacher asked students to close their eyes and extend their arms like branches. The teacher whispered to her: “You are the most beautiful tree in the world.”
It’s moments like those that Davis-Cotton, director of the University of South Florida’s Center for Partnerships in Arts Integrated Teaching, has held onto throughout her career. She was recently named principal investigator for an $8.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to strengthen arts educational programming.
“I want to make more beautiful trees in the world,” she said.
This week, USF announced the federal funding of a five-year project titled Race, Equity, Arts and Cultural History, or REACH. The project’s goal is to create a national model incorporating arts education to teach about cultural history, race and equity that superintendents and curriculum directors can adopt.
While issues of race in education have been fraught with political fallout, Davis-Cotton said the project allows educators to look for culturally relevant ways to engage their students.
Davis-Cotton will work with the Arts Schools Network, a national nonprofit of arts leaders, to train professionals and further develop REACH, an evidence-based model to incorporate more creative and inclusive curricula.
The program will be implemented at model schools, including the William Monroe Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication elementary and middle schools in Bradenton, the Chicago-based Arts In Motion middle and high schools, and the West Michigan Academy of Arts and Academics school.
“The lens with which (professional development) and curriculum will be designed, through the arts, will be a culturally responsive one: exploring race and issues of equity, as well as unpacking hidden histories often not included in today’s curriculum,” David Flatley, a consultant on the project, said in a release.
Davis-Cotton said she hopes that at the end of five years they develop comprehensive instructional units and policies for superintendents to adopt with specific and attainable goals.
“The pandemic has taught us one thing: we can educate differently,” she said. “We have to think differently about how we approach teaching and learning.”