When I accepted the job of Chancellor, I knew right away that the arts would be a focal point of my tenure. The arts are not an add-on or simply an extra-curricular activity – a rich arts curriculum strengthens school communities and teaches students skills and passion, cultivates hobbies and can instill confidence and creativity that students will keep with them for the rest of their lives.
This is evident at PS 111 in Queens. When I visited in September to celebrate the opening of a new cafeteria, I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of students belting at the top of their lungs. I instantly turned around to see where the noise was coming from. As I walked down the hallway, the singing became louder until finally I found the classroom – a group of 25 fourth grade students practicing scales. I interrupted and asked the teacher what they were working on. It was still only the third week of school, but they were already rehearsing for their holiday concert in December. “We have a lot of work to do,” the teacher said with a smile.
She was right, they had a long way to go. But that didn’t matter, because every student in that classroom was beaming with joy. This was the music teacher’s first year at the school and her class represented the culmination of hard work by the principal, Ms. Jaggon, to revamp the school’s arts instruction.
Just two years ago, PS 111 was on the State’s list of persistently dangerous schools. The school was also struggling to engage parents and morale was low. Needless to say, a drastic change was needed and the arts have played a critical part in that effort. The school now has a dance teacher and a new dance studio, a visual arts teacher, a music teacher and a theater teacher. Parents are excited to be in the building where student artwork hangs on every wall and a performance or concert happens with great frequency. Most importantly, students have become more confident, motivated and curious to try new things.
These are the types of investments that we’re seeing schools make in every borough. In fact, over the past two years, school-level spending in the arts has increased by over $45 million. And this year, we have a record high-number of certified arts teachers in our schools – the highest in more than a decade, with nearly 3,000 citywide.
Schools like PS 111 are the reason this administration invests in the arts each year. Because we know that the arts help strengthen school communities, foster creativity and critical thinking skills and help create an inclusive environment for all students.
At PS 111, for example, one in five students is an English Language Learners and nearly 40 percent of students have special needs. The arts have played an even more important role in the lives of students like these and their families. This year, we’ve expanded arts programming for ELL students and students with disabilities to nearly 350 schools across the City, more than double the number of schools in 2014-15. These programs also help students learn English and become more confident and expressive.
When I look at schools like PS 111, I know that our investments in arts go beyond just teaching music, dance, visual arts or theater. Our investments have built stronger ties between families and schools and have opened up new and exciting doors for students, helping them discover passions they never knew they had.
As we continue to make these investments in the arts, and cultivate partnerships with cultural institutions, I’m also proud that thousands of 7th graders have benefitted from “Teen Thursdays” where they enjoy the incredible museum offerings across our City. And for the first time, we’re also providing some high schools with additional funding and support so that they can enhance their arts programs and attract more students through competitive auditions. As more schools spend their own resources on the arts programming, it is clear that the arts have become a pillar of instruction in our schools.
Now, after 52 years of working in New York City schools, I will be retiring in the coming months. It gives me great pride and satisfaction to see this reinvigorated passion for the arts from our youngest learners through high school. The arts are not a frill, and they are here to stay.