Boston Brings the Music Back by Boosting Arts Education

Posted by Nancy Rogan on

JUDY WOODRUFF: At a time when public schools across the country are cutting the arts out of education, a jazz musician in Boston is finding a way to push through the noise.

Lisa Stark of our partners at Education Week has this report for our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

LISA STARK: Myran Parker-Brass began singing at age 5. She’s never stopped. A classically trained mezzo-soprano, she’s now raising her voice to push arts education in Boston’s public schools.

MYRAN PARKER-BRASS, Executive Director for the Arts, Boston Public Schools: Finding the opportunity to teach, as well as to perform, has always been what keeps me sane, I think.

LISA STARK: Parker-Brass is the district’s arts director, a job she jumped into five years ago after two decades with the Boston Symphony. A one-time public schoolteacher herself, she had an ambitious plan.

MYRAN PARKER-BRASS: Our goal is that we will have 100 percent of our students in K-8 receiving at least weekly arts education.

LISA STARK: They’re almost there. In 2009, less than 70 percent of elementary and middle school students had a regular arts class. Today, over 90 percent do.

CHILDREN: She was right behind us, wasn’t she?

LISA STARK: Taking theater, dance, music and visual art at least once a week. And the percentage of high school students taking art classes has nearly tripled.

ALLYSSA JONES, Program Director for Performing Arts, Boston Public Schools: It’s been a huge, huge change.

LISA STARK: Allyssa Jones, who oversees the district’s performing arts program, was a music teacher when Parker-Brass came on board and began ramping up the arts programs.

ALLYSSA JONES: What a parade, man, what a parade. What a battle to win. Changing minds is pretty awesome.

LISA STARK: Changing minds about the value of arts education.

MYRAN PARKER-BRASS: Learning and working in the arts provide students the opportunity to be creative, to be innovative, to be reflective, to learn how to work as a team.

LISA STARK: And it’s not just students who are harmonizing. Parker-Brass built a team to support her arts teachers, and she fine-tuned outside partnerships already in place.

These high school students, for example, explore art with the help of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, but the lynchpin of the turnaround, increased funding. Under Parker-Brass, Boston increased its arts spending by more than 50 percent, from $17 million to $26 million, and added millions more in outside grant funding, allowing the district to double the number of full-time art teachers.

The result? An additional 14,000 students in Boston now receive instruction during the school week. Parker-Brass isn’t ready to take a bow. She’s too busy with her next push, trying to convince Massachusetts state universities to change their admission requirements to include not just academics, but a high school arts class.

MYRAN PARKER-BRASS: I think our job is to make sure that our students see art, understand art, appreciate it, and, it is — and if they are passionate enough, create it.

Lisa Stark of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.

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