Why do all children need education in the arts? 

Over the past 15 years serving as supervisor of Visual and Performing Arts and 21st Century Life and Careers for the Paramus Public Schools, I have had the opportunity to work with many incredible students and have witnessed firsthand how the arts impacted their lives and future careers in a profound way. The “why” of arts education is embodied by Dr. Victoria Herrmann, a Paramus High School alumna. Herrmann, 29, is currently the president and managing director of The Arctic Institute, a nonprofit that promotes research into the complex issues facing the Arctic. She is also a National Geographic Explorer, where one of her functions is to use stories to bring attention to climate change impacts and inspire people to act together to find solutions. 

Dr. Herrmann’s job — telling America’s climate change story and crafting sustainable, equitable policies for a livable future — requires the foundational skills she acquired in arts classes as a student at Paramus Public Schools. 

At Paramus High School, she sang her way through four years of choir classes and studied AP Art History books long after she finished her homework. Her art classes, and in particular art history, were an immersive learning experience that taught her far more than definitions of chiaroscuro and the process of creating an encaustic painting. These courses instilled in Herrmann a lifelong commitment to analyze the social, economic, and political contours of art, and question the consequences of what was visible and invisible to audiences’ eyes. She still remembers the excitement and satisfaction she felt handing in her art history final on Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 [completed in 1814]. Not only was she able to visually explore the painting’s symbolism and iconography, but she was also able to explore the socioeconomic and political conditions which led to the revolt in May 1808 and how art can inspire empathy, conviction, and collective action.

Victoria Herrman’s arts education at Paramus High School helped her develop the skills needed to research, analyze, and write — skills she used as an art history major at Lehigh University, later as she completed a Ph.D. in geography as a Gates Scholar at Cambridge University, and today as she works with cultural heritage leaders to keep public art, architecture, and history above water as sea levels rise.

 But when she thinks back to her time in art classes as a Paramus student, she says that “the most important and lasting impact it has had on me is the courage, compassion, and creativity my arts teachers infused in me. Lessons of storytelling and critical discourse analysis my teachers taught to me over a decade ago still inspire and elevate my research regardless of where I’m working — whether testifying in front of the U.S. House of Representatives or presenting at the United Nations climate change negotiations.”

The lessons that Victoria Herrmann learned from the arts classes she took in high school are ones that all students should be taught. The Paramus school district has put that principle into practice over the past several years.

Using Data to Create Change To share the journey of how we used data to create change in the Paramus Public Schools, I have to go back 15 years to when I began my work as the new supervisor of visual and performing arts. During my first few years, while getting acclimated and learning the nuances of the position, the New Jersey Department of Education created a plan to survey all core curriculum content areas not included in the statewide assessment program. The New Jersey Visual and Performing Arts Education Survey was distributed to all school districts statewide. As a new administrator, filling out the survey helped me pinpoint our strengths and weaknesses in arts education. The survey enabled me to dig deeper, to sit with principals and central office administration within the district, have meaningful and honest discussions about our programs, and brainstorm ways we can improve. After I submitted the survey, Arts Ed NJ provided Paramus and all school districts in New Jersey with a thorough report compiled from the extensive amount of data collected. For the first time, arts administrators had accurate, relevant data to use as leverage to help make a change in our programs. This was monumental. For a new supervisor, the information was beyond helpful: It was invaluable data I would not otherwise have had in my hands. 

The “State of the Arts” in Paramus? The overall data from the report indicated that there were a few areas that needed immediate attention. The state calls for access to all four arts disciplines (music, theater, dance and visual arts). While Paramus High School offered music and art, it did not offer dance. We had a theater program, but it was embedded in the language arts department. We had a thriving performance-based music program. Still, we did not have educational technology to aid in instruction nor alternative electives for students who were interested in music but not interested in enrolling in the traditional ensemble program- band, orchestra, and choir. We had a visual arts program, but needed to streamline the offerings to allow students the ability to enter higher-level art classes such as the AP Studio Art programs in their junior/senior year of high school. We also needed to improve the media arts component of the program to include new curricula and industry-standard technology.

Once the data was analyzed and deficiencies noted, an action plan was created. Being a districtwide initiative, the plan required that all stakeholders, especially the board of education, commit to the project. By laying out the vision and plan to the board and keeping them engaged throughout the journey, I was able to enhance the level of support from what was an already-committed board. 

Reflecting on the board’s level of commitment, board of education trustee William Holzmann shared his views, stating that the Paramus Board of Education “understands the value that arts education has on the development of the student as a whole, and recognizes that this is not a ‘nice to have’; instead, it is a ‘must-have.’ Arts education may set some students on the path of a career in the performing or culinary arts. More likely, their arts education will supplement their overall education and personal development by providing the student with critical thinking and problem-solving skills that transcend any career path. Quite simply, the board recognizes that arts education is a core component of public education.”

In the past decade, Paramus has taken action to enhance its arts education for students. Some changes made include:

  • A new dance program at Paramus High School and expanded dance offerings at the middle school level
  • A new music technology program with new classes such as Music Technology and Piano
  • New technology and black and white photography labs with new art classes such as filmmaking, documentary, AP Photography, and Graphic Design
  • A revised theater arts program and expanded offerings at the middle school level
  • Partnerships established with local universities to provide dual enrollment opportunities in the arts.

Paramus has also undertaken several community-school partnerships to strengthen the arts program. More details about these are available in the article beginning on page 25.

I was determined that the next time the arts survey came out, Paramus would be ready. In 2008, the arts survey was administered again. Paramus met all the criteria. Because of this, we qualified to apply for the Model School of the Arts program. This was an intensive application process. In addition to the application, representatives from the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership spent a day at our school, reviewing the program, curriculum, and interviewing teachers, students, and administrators. In 2012, Paramus High School was one of four schools in New Jersey to receive the Model School of the Arts designation.

The 2019 New Jersey Arts Education Annual Summary Report On Sept. 9, 2019, Paramus High School had the opportunity to celebrate National Arts in Education Week with Gov. Phil Murphy.

In addition to the governor visiting arts classrooms, we had the opportunity to attend a press conference where Bob Morrison, director of Arts Ed NJ,  unveiled the results of the new state report, which was released this fall. Once again, I found myself looking through the results of the latest report and seeing pockets of improvements that we can make as a department, such as adding additional dance and theater classes for K-5 and including more performance opportunities for students who might not otherwise be interested in the traditional BOC (band, orchestra, choir) programs.

Lessons Learned  Below are some of the takeaways and suggestions from our experience in making our arts education program broader and deeper. Our recommendations:

Create “belief statements.” Anne Fennel, the K-12 music program manager in the San Diego Unified School District, shared with attendees at the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) National Conference the need for powerful belief statements. She encourages arts administrators to create belief statements as the statements become the “light that guides them on their path.” Fennel’s belief statements are as follows: “1. I believe in lifelong learning and access to arts education for all children. 2. I believe in casting the educational net wide to all students providing them with rich and diverse offerings in all art forms. 3. I believe and know that the arts are creative, rigorous, academic subjects that are part of a well-rounded education and that all children should be allowed to experience them. 4. I believe the arts improve the human condition through creative expression that defines our humanity and culture.”

Be self-reflective. Understand and accept that this work will take a few years, and that’s ok because taking the time needed to do the research will result in a reliable, tangible plan. Visit other school districts and share best practice ideas with your colleagues. 

Take time to reflect on what story the data is telling. What are your areas of strength? Where are opportunities for improvement? Make sure everyone owns the data — the superintendent, building principals, board members, community members, parents, and students. This is a school/districtwide effort, and you need everyone on the same page.

The data is only meaningful if used to drive transformation. To that end, use the data to create a plan for improvement. Include in the plan both short-term goals (diversification of course offerings, improved scheduling to allow more students to participate) and longer-term goals (add a new discipline or add new classrooms or technology). 

Measure again, and be extremely reflective. Use the new, updated data from the 2019 New Jersey Arts Education Annual Summary Report to help drive accountability. If one of the goals was to increase student participation, what did you do? Did your strategies work? If not, why not? And then, based on the results, revise the plan — don’t lose sight of why you are doing this work- it’s for the kids, and they deserve it.

During National Arts in Education Week that took place in September, Bob Morrison announced during his keynote address that New Jersey is the first state to document universal access to arts education for all students. As the report indicates, our work remains unfinished. In spite of our gains in participation over the past decade, we still have more than 26,000 elementary students and another 45,000 middle school students who should be participating in the arts who are not. As Bob Morrison put it so eloquently, “In a world where imagination, creativity and innovation are sculpting our future, ensuring we provide the inspiration for these skills for all students must be our goal.”

Read the full report.   

Lisa Vartanian is supervisor of visual and performing arts and 21st century life and careers for the Paramus school district.