By Tom Stites
The vision for our Owensboro Independent Schools fine arts department – Every Art for Every Child in Every School – is more than a slogan. It is a culture that has been developing in this city for generations.
Kentucky’s fourth-largest city supports a symphony orchestra, two dance companies, two theater companies and visual arts that are celebrated with a museum of fine art and two robust college arts programs.
The school board and district leadership made a conscious decision in 1999 to build a comprehensive arts program in our school system. Historically, school arts programs have been driven by outstanding teachers who lead individual programs. These “star” teachers attract talented students and build excellence through their efforts.
The Owensboro Independent School district works to attract these teachers in every art form and offers a high level of professional development that keeps them at the forefront of their discipline. The Kennedy Center Partners in Education program allows the district to collaborate with RiverPark Center, the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra and Daviess County Public Schools for professional development efforts ranging from national to state to subject-specific topics.
Budgeting, staffing, scheduling, professional development and the annual Fine Arts Festival are led by the coordinator of fine arts. Having an arts-centered individual at the district level encourages a global view of their arts program and meaningful discussion with district and school leaders on how the arts impact the lives of each student.
Funding all performing arts teacher positions from central office allows the district to schedule collaboratively and make efficient use of their arts staff across the entire district. Through the arts teachers being encouraged to work as colleagues, students are afforded the opportunity to explore multiple arts disciplines throughout their academic career.
The continuing support of school leadership also enhances our entire program. School board members and Superintendent Nick Brake regularly attend fine arts events and welcome parents as emcees each night of the Fine Arts Festival. This event offers six days of performances that are free, open to the public and attract standing-room-only crowds. Over 700 pieces of student art work are on public display for two weeks, adjudicated by a local artist and enjoyed by audiences throughout the festival.
What effect has this arts-focus had on the district? Student enrollment has grown 20 percent in the past five years alone. Owensboro High School has increased enrollment over 40 percent, with 80 percent of students enrolled in the arts. School buildings are being expanded and the new Owensboro Innovation Academy is welcoming students to project-based learning, while ensuring they continue in the arts programs. These students are attracted by the quality of outstanding academic, athletic and artistic programs. Many parents choose the district because they value the arts and want their children involved in a variety of activities that address the whole child.
While training students to be technically proficient for future careers is valued in the Owensboro Independent School district, the 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, vision and resilience are the focus of the arts. With a future that likely will include multiple careers revolving around learning new skills and gaining new insights, students need the arts now more than ever to enrich their personal and professional lives. Rather than training for jobs, the district chooses to address the whole child in becoming an adult who learns and grows based upon his/her interests and passion for life.
The decisions of the administration and school board make it possible to offer every art for every child in every school in the district. Through quality collaborations, meaningful support, outstanding teachers and a commitment that no child will ever be excluded from the arts based upon financial hardship, Owensboro Independent Schools are ensuring a quality arts program is part of every child’s school experience.