BUILDING AN EARLY CONNECTION TO THE ARTS
BUILDING AN EARLY CONNECTION TO THE ARTS
By Joel M. Dorr
For years we have watched support for the arts dwindle away as politicians and city administrators slash and cut arts funding promising to repay the money when times are better. The irony is that the economic times never seem to get better and may not for some time considering our current financial condition.
Across America it is the norm to find school administrations funding sports or other, more popular extracurricular activities while dropping drama, band, chorus and art programs from the school curriculum.
According to several studies, the impact the arts have in education have long been impressive; truancy drops, math and science skills accelerate and the potential for students to go to college increases; to list only a few reasons why involvement in the arts is important to our children.
Which begets the question: Why do we continue to sacrifice fine arts programs from our public school curricula?
Well, one community saw the benefits the arts made in their community and made it a priority. Taking the bull by the horns, the people of Clovis and Fresno, Calif. enacted a bold initiative to insure arts would remain an important part of their children’s learning for years to come.
Forcing the issue
Nestled at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in the geographical and economic heart of the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, reside the community of Fresno and Clovis. The responsibility of educating this community’s children, including some unincorporated areas of Fresno County and the rural community of Friant, falls to the Clovis Unified School District where equitable treatment of all the campuses is a top priority.
“If you go to the oldest campus in our district it looks the same as our newest campus,” says Kelly Avants, administrator, communications & board relations for the Clovis Unified School District. “No matter where you live in our district, you get the same experience. We have invested resources to make sure a student who attends our oldest schools, such as those built in the 1940’s or 1950s, feels like they are getting the same quality and accessing the same caliber of education as a student at the newest campus.”
How did they do this? The people of Clovis made a decision not to leave the quality of their children’s education up to chance and proactively pursue what was most important to their community. They circled the wagons a long time ago and began putting bond measures on the ballot earmarking money for their school system. The took action forbidding the reallocation of those funds by any city or state administrator or politician who might get the bright idea a new dog park is more relevant than updating the classrooms of our future leaders.
“We want them [the students] to leave as well-rounded individuals. We see emphasis on the arts and place an emphasis on involvement and tying kids to something. Whether they want to be in football or choir, be in band or drama, we want kids to connect to something. We have seen time after time that if a student can find something to be passionate about and we foster and encourage that passion, their academic performance stays on track,” explains Avants.
This passion is preserved regardless of the current budgetary constraints a state like California is facing. Bonds are presented to the public and voted in regularly to insure the educational dollars are always available regardless of the financial situation of the local or state budgets.
With an understanding of the concept of arts supplementing and strengthening a student’s education the Clovis Unified School District embraces art as a potential career path and deems it as credible as any other career trade. To sustain this philosophy, the school district looks for other resources to help fund their arts programs.
“At Buchanan High School we are receiving career technical money from the state creating Drama theatre art strand so they will have a wonderful facility to use and train in,” says Avants.
In other words, career technical money, which at another school district might fund an auto mechanics garage, will go toward this state-of-the-art facility in the Clovis Unified School District to give students a real world learning experience.
All this talk of teaching and fostering art makes for a warm and fuzzy feeling, but is there proof the arts make a difference in the lives of students. One standard or measure is to benchmark and test students collective performance. Using the California Department of Education’s Academic Performance Index (API), most schools shoot for a goal of 800 but fall short for a variety of reasons.
“Our student academic performance rates in state and federal tests are far above the state and county averages,” states Avants. “We have Title 1 schools which have been identified by the government as schools that are going to be traditionally underachieving schools due to socioeconomic issues and/or language issues that the students might have. Our Title 1 schools have academic performance index that are over 800, with only two testing below at 790.”
These outstanding scores highlight the potential of adopting a philosophy which encourages the student to follow their passion while making it easier to stay engaged in their academic path.
To help foster student careers in the arts, the Clovis Unified School District set a bar so high that professionals are clamoring to see the results.
If you build it, they will learn
Sitting on the campus of the Clovis North Education Center is the new $17.5 million Performance Arts Center which houses the Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall and the Dan Pessano Black Box Theater. This extraordinary one-of-a-kind art center for education is a testament to the will of the people in Clovis and Fresno and their commitment to incorporating the arts into their children’s upbringing.
“The School District’s concept was to take away any excuse for them [the students] to underperform. They made it clear the facility should not handicap them,” explains Martin Dietz, the lead architect of Darden Architects, Inc., who designed the facility.
Dietz points out the 750 fixed seat concert hall was designed to not only produce outstanding audio throughout the facility, but also provide a safe environment for which students will learn the technical skills needed to manage behind the scenes.
The acoustics in the Concert Hall, which some have said are unbelievable, did not happen by accident.
“We designed this facility strictly with acoustics in mind and we accomplished this with a little bit of science and a little bit of artistry. To get it just right, we utilized the services of acoustician Bill Dohn and theatre consultants, Landry & Bogan, who assisted in the layout and design of the concert hall including the rigging for the reflector cloud overhead,” says Dietz.
The design team provided the technical staff with the ability to ‘tune the room’. The design included a reverberations chamber on the upper half, all the way around the performance space. When technical staff open or close the drapery it increases or decreases the reverberation in the room by as much as two seconds. This reverberation chamber makes it possible to fine tune each production according the unique sound characteristics produced by such variables as size and type of instruments being used in the performance.
And while the concert hall is an acoustic dream, the space had other needs which had to be addressed by the design team.
“They had a programmatic desire to do dance in this facility and so while it is primarily designed for music, we had to make accommodations for a lighting system to do dance,” reports Heather McAvoy, lead consultant at Landry and Bogan.
The small black box Pessano theatre may not have had the heavy acoustical requirements of the concert hall or the special attention to lighting, but the educational experience was just as important to the students.
“The burden of trying to fit an enormous amount of theatre activity into the Mercedes Edwards Theater, which sits on another campus, was the reasoning for building
the smaller black box theatre here,” says Dietz.
The idea was to build a black box theatre which could mount the smaller dramatic works which didn’t require a lot of music. This facility gives the students a chance to work in a “real life” scenario of professional theatre as the space allows each production to completely change according to the design of the production.
According to Dietz the black box provides the perfect learning environment for all disciplines of technical theatre including lighting, sound and stage management. The flex seating can hold between 150 and 250 seats depending on the design of the set and the seating configuration.
The Performance Arts Center recently received national recognition by winning the Impact on Learning Award from the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. The reputation of the concert halls outstanding acoustic quality has grown, quickly drawing premiere performance groups to the area who may not have been interested previously.
For The Love Of Art
Finding a child’s passion and encouraging it. It is a simple formula and yet such an important equation in creating a successful educational path.
The people of Clovis and Fresno should feel fortunate they have the Clovis Unified School District watching over the education of their children. And in return, the Clovis Unified School District should feel grateful for the support they receive from the voters of their district.
McAvoy also applauds the winning combination stating, “One thing I have to admire about the School District is that they wanted a professional space that would set a high bar to honor the work that their students do by treating them as professionals.”