From the corner of 84th Drive in the Briarwood section of New York City, Karen Phillips can see the school garden. It makes her smile. But the garden is more than just a beautiful combination of trees, shrubs, and flowers—it also contains a 20-foot mural designed from historic photographs of the neighborhood.
As part of a parent-involvement program last year at the 1,350-student Public School 117 in the borough of Queens, 10 parents cleaned up a garbage-strewn section of the playground and planted the area while their children learned about square footage, plant species, and neighborhood history. After several trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, where students and parents attended a series of workshops, the garden was slowly transformed to include the mural.
Ms. Phillips, who is the coordinator of PS 117’s Family Learning Project, says the garden will play a continuing role in this year’s program, named “Garden is Art.” Students and parents will visit the Brooklyn Museum’s mosaic collection, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and the Chinese scholars’ garden in the Metropolitan Museum. They plan to turn a shady portion of their 2,000-square-foot plot into a rock garden.
The garden project has been paid for with a “Parents as Art Partners” grant given by the Center for Arts Education, a New York City-based nonprofit organization. The group was created as part of a five-year arts initiative with the Annenberg Challenge to jump-start arts education.
The center awards $3,000 grants to New York City public schools that seek to involve more parents in their children’s education. This school year the center has given nearly 100 grants to schools like PS 117 to pay for activities that will create stronger parent-school ties through arts education.
The original Annenberg Challenge fund that supported the center expired last year, but the program was such a success that Annenberg officials have decided to provide an additional five-year, $12 million grant.
That money will be supplemented by the New York state board of education, which has agreed to kick in another $2 million. Center officials say they plan to give out another 500 grants over the next five years and hope eventually to expand its program to all 1,100 public schools in New York City.
PS 144, another school in Queens, plans to use its grant money to launch a program it calls “Rediscovering America.” The initiative will focus on the American experience by studying a variety of artists throughout history, as well as the New York City landmarks that stood during their lifetimes.
Parents and students will be able to write personal genealogies and apply their own experiences as Americans to the project, while learning to navigate the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
Parental involvement is crucial to learning, said Lauri Tisck Sussman, the chairwoman of the Center for Arts Education’s board. “In all schools, but especially New York City, so many cultures are represented. The more that parents can get involved, the more children can learn.”
Lois Olsham, the arts coordinator at the 750-student PS 144, said the arts can help forge those bonds. “Art is a way to have a common language in a multicultural society, a way for children to make sense of things they don’t understand by applying academic concepts to the real world.”
Mimi C. Flaherty, the senior director of education with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va., said schools must make themselves more comfortable settings in order to attract parents and get them more involved.
“We have so many cultural refugees in our population now that parents are often reluctant to come into schools because the school itself is seen as a part of the bureaucracy they’re running from,” Ms. Flaherty said.
Programs also need to rope parents in early, she said, as well as give them meaningful experiences. Timing can also play a role. Working parents face scheduling constraints, meaning many cultural programs offered by schools must be held on evenings or weekends.
Developing high-quality arts programs has been challenging. Hamstrung since the budget crises that arose around the nation in the 1970s, arts education programs have often been viewed as nickel- and-dime events that have little or no bearing on a child’s academic development. School districts faced with shrinking funding see them as one of the easiest and safest ways to trim their budgets.
“It’s a huge challenge for regular school programs,” said Ms. Flaherty, who added that while some schools do face fixed budgets, a greater obstacle is simply getting people to understand the value of arts education. “If you get parents involved in a meaningful way, you’re connecting the home to the school and the school to the community.”
Arts for All
Another problem is the lack of a clear national picture of how much schools budget, spend, and cut when it comes to the arts, said Richard J. Deasy, the director of the Arts Education Partnership, a Washington-based private, nonprofit coalition of education, arts, business, philanthropic, and government organizations.
“People today don’t see the arts as offering the kinds of skills young people need to excel in our economy,” Mr. Deasy said. “But they’re wrong.”
In fact, he notes, many of the skills fostered by the arts are used in a variety of high-paying fields, such as graphic design, an industry in which artists work on Web sites, medical imaging, and entertainment industry projects, as well as fields such as architecture and fashion design.
In addition, many educators find that parents are unaware that the arts can be learned by all children with beneficial results—not just by the gifted or exceptionally talented.
“The arts are a cognitive skill,” said PS 144 parent and museum educator JoAnne Wasti, who works at the Guggenheim Museum. “They engage children so a teacher isn’t just talking, but taking students beyond the text. This lays down a foundation for learning higher concepts.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as The Artistry of Getting Parents More Involved