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Kentucky School Advocate
By Matt McCarty
A strong commitment to the arts is part of the DNA in the Owensboro Independent school district, Superintendent Nick Brake said.
That commitment was recognized in April when Owensboro’s board of education won the 28th annual Kennedy Center and National School Boards Association Award. The award, presented at this spring’s NSBA annual conference in Boston, recognizes school boards for their outstanding support of arts education.
“Our board has had a long-standing commitment to providing arts for all students in all grade levels in all schools and all the different arts,” Brake said. “That’s been a hallmark for 20 years so I certainly can’t take any credit for it because we’ve had board commitment to this for a long time, multiple superintendents, and we’ve had administrative support going back several superintendents in our school system for these programs.”
Board Chairwoman Cate Lauzon said it’s “impressive” that a district the size of Owensboro can compete nationally with its advocacy for the arts.
“I think we have a rich tradition and I think that is validated,” she said. “And it’s not just this board or the last board, our support of the arts is very long-standing that reaches very far back and there are many, many people who have contributed to advocating and protecting and deepening our commitment to the arts, understanding what the arts give to our students; I just think that’s amazing.”
Tom Stites, the district’s fine arts director, praised the school board for its support of the arts. Owensboro funds the arts at the district level instead of the school level, including 25 arts teachers staffed through the central office.
“I’ve spent my life in education,” Stites said. “People ask me, ‘You know, how do you find out if a system values the arts?’ And I always say let me take a look at the balance sheet for a few minutes and I’ll tell you.”
The district completed a $23 million expansion to the high school in 2010 that included a gymnasium and a 14,000-square-foot fine arts wing. The wing includes, among other things, a band and orchestra room, a chorus room and a black box theater, which Brake said is possibly the only one in a Kentucky high school,
The award included $10,000. “We want to make sure that that $10,000 is invested wisely so we’re looking at a variety of options right now,” Stites said.
“Every art for every child in every school”
Every child in the Owensboro school district participates in the arts at the elementary level.
Stites said each elementary student has dance through a PE teacher; music through a certified music specialist; and visual art through the classroom teacher. He said the theater program at that level is almost complete.
At the middle school level, students can participate in two art disciplines and more than 90 percent participate in at least one. Each area is taught by a certified arts specialist.
Stites said more than 80 percent of high school students participate in the arts.
“We think it’s educating the whole child and we think it’s educating every child because every child has a chance to participate in all forms of arts from preschool on,” said board Vice-Chairwoman Nancy Eskridge.
“We want the best teachers we can get in these various genres because the teachers make the difference, as with any classroom subject,” she said. “We believe that the arts helps our students in being able to do better in math and language arts and the science classes because it exercises the other side of their brains.”
Arts as a career pathway?
Eskridge said the arts should be recognized as a college and career pathway in Kentucky schools.
“When you see (students) finish up high school and go on to college and then get jobs … there are jobs there, not just teaching,” Eskridge said. “There are jobs out there that will make a difference and that’s validation enough for me.”
Lauzon’s two daughters participated in the arts while attending school in the district.
“I guarantee my daughters would not be in the professions they’re in had they not gone through Owensboro Public Schools,” she said.
Her oldest daughter is studying music therapy at the University of Kentucky’s graduate school. Lauzon’s youngest daughter is pursuing a theater career.
“We have a commitment to teaching the whole child and you cannot do that without the arts,” she said. “I can’t imagine either of my daughters without either side, science and art.”
Brake’s children were participating in the district’s arts program before he became superintendent.
“It’s been something that they’ve grown up with through the school system and it’s served them well. They’ve been successful there,” he said. “And they’re not going to go on and be musicians or professionals, but it’s really contributed to the broad nature of their education.
“I’ve seen the benefit as a parent as well as a school leader,” Brake said. “It’s just a terrific cornerstone for us to a complete education. And we won’t waiver from that. We feel very strongly that it’s a really critical part of our mission.”
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