How to build support for a school’s performing arts programs is an issue that has been discussed since these vital programs were first integrated into schools.
All schools – even those within the same district – often have elements that make them different from each other and contribute to the school culture. These differences are not created in a vacuum and typically reflect the greater community of which the school is a part. As a result, building support within the school requires consideration of the wider community.
In general, people support other individuals who they feel are doing something positive or necessary for them, or those who are important to them. Students within a community’s school would certainly be included. Therefore, schools must be aware of the larger community while working to build school support for the performing arts program.
There are four distinct groups – students, staff, administration, and parents/community members – involved in creating this support for the arts. Like legs on a table, they create balanced support and require equal consideration.
Students can be directly impacted through awards programs, performing for their peers in the community, on special trips or competitions, hosting auditions or festivals, recitals, exposure to special performances by college groups or military ensembles, and attending music festivals and auditions. These activities can make students involved in arts programs feel valued, and parents appreciate when their children are valued and provided special opportunities.
Arts programs should also consider connecting with students through social media. A “Friends of the Arts” Facebook group easily extends beyond a student’s school life into his or her adult life, keeping them connected and adding community awareness and support.
The staff is also an important group to consider. The performing arts program is affected daily by the work and decisions of a building’s staff including custodians, secretaries, para-professionals, special educators and teaching staff. Communication is the key to accessing support from this group. Coordinating the scheduling of concerts and special events with the athletic director can have a positive impact on students; additionally, this coordination can create good will from the coaches. Planning the performing arts calendar well in advance and providing updates and reminders regularly to the staff helps eliminate conflicts and keeps the arts program visible.
Engaging in committees, especially those that will directly affect the program, is another way to open lines of communication with a broad variety of staff and allow the performing arts voice to be part of the discussion as schools change and adapt to the challenges of a 21st century education.
Another positive avenue for engagement in the wider school is cooperating with other disciplines whenever possible. This can take many forms from co-teaching a course that weaves two or more disciplines together to cooperating on a project like a musical or variety show.
Many schools have a performing arts space, whether it be a converted gym or an auditorium. These are typically used by many parties, both school and community, and require someone to schedule and care for the space. This is another opportunity for the arts teachers to work with and assist their colleagues. At times, others are challenged by technology, and truly appreciate it when those in the arts area help them get the computer to work with the projector or get the music on their phone to play through the PA system.
Simple things like sitting with different staff at meetings, engaging in any social events, being willing to cover for a colleague’s bus or lunch duty, or applying the old adage of “know the custodians and secretaries since they run the building,” all help create relationships that will provide opportunities for performing arts teachers to know and understand other staff and for them to better know and understand what the arts program is all about. In some schools, many of these staff members live in town and are deeply imbedded in the fabric of the community. What they take away when they leave the building each day will certainly be spread across fences or at backyard barbecues.
School administrators have many people pulling them in different directions. As hard as they try to communicate everything going on in a school, it is the sports and performing arts areas that create much of a school’s public perception.
Providing as much information as possible to the administration regarding the performing arts program can garner the administration’s support. No administrator wants to hear news about his or her school after the fact. Personal invitations for an administrator to attend could include everything from special lessons that are planned to public performances in both the school and in the community. Keeping the administration, including the school board, aware of the students’ accomplishments in the performing arts allows the administration to proudly relay the achievements to the community.
The parents and community, in general, are the fourth leg on this table of support. Reaching out to these two groups can be far more difficult than appealing to the other three groups. Typically, there is not daily contact with the parents/community. This means the performing arts program needs to be proactive in connecting with these individuals.
Communication with these groups is again the key, utilizing methods such as signs by the school’s entrance, weekly newsletters, email chains, cable television, local newspapers or radio stations, school websites, Twitter or whatever platform comes next. These communication platforms can access volunteers, encourage booster club membership, advertise programs or concerts, celebrate student successes, and share future plans. Most importantly, these efforts confirm that the performing arts program is providing opportunities for success to what is considered the community’s most precious resource – its students.
The work of building school support for performing arts programs is never done. While the task is challenging, building this support is vital for the future health of these programs and the significant and far-reaching impact performing arts programs have on our students, schools, communities and country.
Robert Gattie recently retired after 37 years teaching music in Hartford, Vermont. His career included general and vocal music in grades 5-12, many music electives, responsibility for the high school’s annual musical and variety show, and coaching both boys lacrosse and girls ice hockey.