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The Rise of Arts Education in Baltimore City Public Schools

By Julia Di Bussolo, Executive Director of Arts Everyday

After years of decline, access to arts education is expanding in Baltimore City Public Schools. I repeat: ARTS EDUCATION IS EXPANDING IN BALTIMORE CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS! Baltimore City Public Schools is on track to provide visual art and music instruction to every Pre-Kindergarten through 8th-grade student and improved depth of study in the arts for high school students by the year 2022. Currently, the district is recruiting for over 55 new certified arts teachers in Visual Art, Music, Theatre, and Dance for the 2019-2020 school year.

So, how did the tide turn?

Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) is a district comprised of 172 schools and programs serving 79,297 students. Since 2008, Baltimore City has operated under the "Fair Student Funding," model which funded schools based on enrollment numbers and gave principals the autonomy to formulate their budgets around their priorities. The intent behind “Fair Student Funding” according to former CEO Dr. Andres Alonso was

“... very simple: the action is in the schools. The resources should be in the schools, and the community should be involved in decisions at the school level. With guidance and support from the district, our expectation is that schools are going to make better decisions about teaching and learning.”

Simultaneously, Federal policies under “No Child Left Behind” created a high stakes environment focused on standardized testing.

In Baltimore, the focus on testing and principal autonomy combined with annual cuts to State education funding resulted in a steady decline of certified arts educators. Because positions were cut at the school level, there were no mass layoffs to make newspaper headlines. In the words of longtime artist and arts advocate Mary Ann Mears, “The arts suffered a death by a thousand cuts.” Currently, only 50% of city schools offer music instruction, 75% offer visual art instruction and little to no dance or theatre instruction.

Since 2012, a collection of concerned artists, organizations, and educators have worked collaboratively to raise public awareness of the issues contributing to this inequity in the arts. Through data collection, annual presentations to the School Board, op-eds, and public events, our efforts resulted in increased district and public awareness but not in actual systems change. Between 2015-2017, several conditions shifted in our favor:

  1. President Obama’s administration introduced the Every Student Succeeds Act requiring states to provide every student with a well-rounded education which includes the Arts and Music.
  2. Revisions to the Code of Maryland Schools Regulations closed loopholes within the requirement for local districts to provide every child with an instructional program in Visual Art, Music, Dance, Theatre, and Media Art. While this regulation remains an unfunded state mandate, the revisions and reporting requirements helped bring District attention to the changes.
  3. Baltimore City Public Schools hired CEO, Dr. Sonja Santelises. She brought a pragmatic and collaborative approach to the district and introduced an educational approach for reaching the whole child - not just the corresponding test score. While Baltimore City remains a decentralized district, Dr. Santelises has also introduced increased transparency and opportunities for families and community members to inform district policy.

With a new policy landscape in place, a mobilized advocacy base, and significant support from district leadership, Arts Every Day and Baltimore City Public Schools applied for and received a National Endowment for the Arts Collective Impact grant. In Fall 2017, the Baltimore Arts Education Initiative launched with the goal of engaging a wide range of local stakeholders to create a Fine Arts Strategic Plan with actionable goals. In May 2018, the superintendent presented the complete Arts Plan as part of the Blueprint for Success, a districtwide initiative to support student wholeness, literacy, and staff leadership. School year 2022 is the first major benchmark of the Arts Plan with the goals:

  1. Grades PK-5 enrolled every year in visual art and music classes, dance and theater units taught within physical education and language arts.
  2. Grades 6-8 enrolled in 1 or more arts classes every year with option for continuous discipline-specific instruction.
  3. Grades 9-12 choose from all arts subjects to complete the art graduation requirement. Students can enroll in one or more arts discipline each year to specialize and prepare for college/career in the arts.

Implementation of this plan began with a major shift in the school year 2019-2020 budget policy requiring principals to meet and maintain certified arts teachers to student enrollment ratios.

Investment in the creative economy starts at the public school level. If we get this right, every elementary school student will be experience instructional programs in art, music, dance, theater, and media arts education. Every middle school will offer students the opportunity to specialize in one more arts discipline and hone their skills in preparation for high school. Opportunities will exist at every high school for students to master an arts discipline, develop an artistic point of view and prepare for college and career.

Implications for the Arts and Cultural Sector

Access to a high-quality arts education isn’t just a feel-good issue for those of us who appreciate the arts - it is essential to the future of our arts and culture sector. The effort to connect Baltimore City youth with arts education classes and opportunities cannot end at the classroom if we are serious about building a diverse and local creative workforce. Let’s come together and leverage our incredible resources to benefit students in every corner of Baltimore City. In addition to offering field trips, matinees, and residencies to schools, let us also consider:

  • How might we build Career Technical Education (CTE) courses to introduce students to jobs within the creative economy?
  • How might our organizations provide an access point to better understand policy and its impact on the local, state, and national level?
  • How can our students access arts and business focused professional development in order to create sustainable pathways to entrepreneurship that leverage local and state funding opportunities?
  • How can our students better understand what professional opportunities in the arts are available to them and the steps needed to access them?


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