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360: Should art programs, classes in Colorado be a priority during a pandemic?

Arts programs at risk as schools face challenges
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Posted at 8:35 AM, Aug 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-17 10:04:08-04

At a time when schools are facing challenges with reopening and remote learning, as well as budget cuts, would it be easier to slim down the curriculum? Some districts across the country are cutting arts, music and other elective programs. While no district in Colorado has announced such a plan yet, Denver7 decided to take a 360 look at the importance of the arts in a pandemic.

The reality is that some students receive high-quality arts education in their schools. They may also be able to afford classes outside of school, and private lessons. But other kids have fewer opportunities to explore art and music.

At Colorado Academy, a private school P-12 school in Lakewood, art is one of the core values. The school lives by the three A's – academics, art and athletics.

“We believe it’s important that the arts are part of every student's life,” said Katy Hills, director of visual and performing arts.

Students at Colorado Academy have a wide range of artistic opportunities in both visual and performing arts. Music students even take their lessons on campus.

Hills said she believes students would suffer if arts were removed from the curriculum to make more space for core classes.

“We want to make people that make a difference in the world, so instilling in them that they can make change happen starts in the artistic process,” Hill said.

Public school arts teachers also believe they’re providing a necessary education. But Dylan Ford, a music teacher at Dakota Ridge High School in Jefferson County, said arts programs are among the first to face cuts when school budgets shrink.

“I know specifically for Dakota Ridge, we work three bingo sessions a week in normal times to simply fund our program,” he said.

While there’s certainly a difference between public school and private school arts programs, the pandemic may create an even bigger divide between kids from different economic backgrounds.

The newly formed Alliance for Music Education Equity was created to address some of these disparities.

Jamie Wolf, who helped found AMEE through her work with the music program, El Sistema Colorado, said the organizations in AMEE are committed to making sure kids receive music education, whether it’s in school or outside of school.

“A lot of our members are partners with Denver Public Schools, so that’s part of the puzzle is finding ways we can plug in to try and create some continuity of high-quality music experiences for kids,” Wolf said.

The organizations in AMEE, which include the Denver Young Artists Orchestra, the Newman Center for the Performing Arts and Vocal Coalition (VOCO), have all been affected by the pandemic. They can’t have their normal ensembles or performances. But organizations like El Sistema are still planning to offer free online music lessons and programs to students in need.

"This work is actually more important than ever because all of these inequities that existed prior, the divide is going to get greater," said Wolf.

Other arts nonprofits are also doing their best to survive the pandemic. PlatteForum, an arts program in Denver, recently reopened to in-person sessions, but the future is uncertain.

“This is going to take more resources, and nonprofits like ours don’t have those resources,” said Kim Estes McCarty, executive director of PlatteForum.

PlatteForum offers an internship program called Art Lab, aimed to help kids from marginalized communities and Title 1 schools.

Through PlatteForum, former intern Destany Rodriguez finally found a place where she could express herself.

“I feel like I wasn’t really given an opportunity in school. I moved every single year of my school life,” she said.

Rodriguez has been exploring graffiti art and has worked on some large mural projects in Denver. PlatteForum encourages art with a social justice message, but the pandemic is threatening access at a time when it is most needed.

“Kids are struggling. They have siblings to take care of, they have sometimes parents to take care of,” Rodriguez said. “We’re serving black and brown kids who sometimes don’t have access to WiFi or the devices to Zoom call."

Advocates for these programs worry if schools remain closed, certain kids will have even fewer opportunities.

“(Wealthier families) can pay for private art lessons and they’re not relying on their school to expose them to art that resonates with them as a person,” said Sierra Scheid, an intern at PlatteForum.

PlatteForum is currently accepting donations of new art supplies. You can email info@platteforum.org or click here to donate.

Art teachers and young artists worry about maintaining the same level of quality instruction during the pandemic. But some, like teacher Dylan Ford, are confident the world will continue to appreciate the arts.

“I encourage everyone to reflect on what you’ve turned to during (the pandemic)," he said. "We’ve turned to television shows, we’ve turned to albums, we’ve turned to artists.”

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.