This article was originally published in the June 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
Powerful words combine with emotive dance in the temporary home of Trenton Central High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Academy. That is where students in the choreographer’s workshop interpret the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son” with local poet Eloise Bruce and dance teacher Elizabeth Zwierzynski.
At Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School, student musicians play a stirring overture based on the New Jersey Amistad Commission curriculum on slave trade. The music was written by school band director Danny Hall. During the performance, two students showcased dance.
High school orchestra musicians, playing in crowded temporary quarters, rehearse music from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” under the experienced direction of music educator Joseph Pucciatti.
And Grant Elementary and Grace Dunne Middle School musicians perform string orchestral music through the Trenton Music Makers and El Sistema programs.
These four examples are among the many Trenton Public School District arts experiences that the Kennedy Center’s Ensuring Arts for Any Given Child program seeks to sustain, possibly expand, and connect to other subjects.
In 2015 the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., chose Trenton as its 19th national site for the “Any Given Child” program. (There are currently 24 sites). Princeton resident Georgeanne Moss, a Kennedy Center national committee member, facilitated the connection and provided funding in honor of her father.
A year ago Trenton residents, school administrators, and cultural and educational partners from throughout the region formed a 35-member Community Arts Team (CAT) to inventory and assess the arts in Trenton Public Schools. What they found was a lot of talent and many excellent arts programs throughout the 20-school district.
For the 14,560 students, every school has instrumental music from grades 4 to 12. The district has on staff two fulltime dance teachers. Visual arts are strong, and choral work is increasing. There are almost 60 fulltime music and art teachers within the district. Community partners McCarter Theater, VH1 Save the Music, Trenton Music Makers, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the Trenton Public Education Foundation have been committed to the arts in Trenton.
What Any Given Child will do is help to fill in any gaps and help make sure the programs are sustainable. The CAT will help develop support systems such as data collection, partnerships and professional development for arts education providers like classroom teachers, arts specialists, administrators, arts organizations, and teaching artists. Among the committee’s goals are to implement arts integration teaching practices; ensure a sequenced and equitable arts curriculum for all students; increase the number and equitable distribution of partnerships between the schools and local arts organizations; and increase community awareness of the value of the arts in Trenton schools.
“What we learned is that the district has tremendous support for the arts,” says Norberto Diaz, district supervisor for visual and performing arts. “The board of education supports the visual and performing arts as being equal to academics. One needs the arts to be a total, educated human being. You can teach critical thinking but you cannot teach creative thinking. You must provide the environment.”
Currently Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School for the Arts is the flagship school for arts integration, Diaz says. Principal Adrienne Hill says the school became arts-oriented two years ago during an attendance initiative.
“I know arts can change lives,” says Hill, herself a singer. “Once we get you here, we can teach you.”
Two years ago students were asked what might interest them, and they now have guest artists, role models, and partnerships, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera. “It’s hard to get them to audition for colleges if they are not starting until high school,” Hill says. “If they can do this in an auditorium,” she says, pointing to the dancers on stage during the Amistad performance, “they can sequence in the classroom.”
During Any Given Child’s first year, Kennedy Center representatives held meetings and, with the Community Arts Team, undertook an audit of existing arts education resources within the district, which became the basis for a vision statement, says Erica Nagel, who represents Princeton’s McCarter Theater as one of the community arts partners on the team.
McCarter staff members, for example, sit on the CAT executive, programming, and partnership committees and have represented Trenton’s Any Given Child program at national conferences. “We meet with the curriculum superintendents, principals, and parents,” Nagel says. “We are working collaboratively to build essential buy-in within the district.”
“The goal is to increase arts integration. This is where arts and non-arts subjects are taught and assessed equitably. Arts integration means both areas being taught to deepen understanding of each other.”
Participation in Any Given Child influenced McCarter to reimagine some of its own educational offerings in Trenton to emphasize theater integration and partner more directly with other arts organizations, such as Young Audiences. A grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation supports an expansion of the work in Trenton, especially artist residencies.
The Kennedy Center’s Jeanette McCune, director of school and community programs, noted that the group has been “inventorying and aligning programs” during the first full year. In the second year they looked at infrastructure, assembling a “backbone organization.”
Kennedy Center was also available to consult by phone and send teaching artists if needed. A conference this month at the Kennedy Center will showcase best practices in arts integration. This past year the committee received input on how best to implement the plan, increase arts opportunities for K-8 students, formulate goals, and structure committees.
“The main thing is that it is community-driven,” says McCune. “What we learn drives the right fit, as far as the infrastructure goes forward. Trenton is in the discovery process.”
The Kennedy Center also acts as a resource, an exchange for advice and guidance with the CAT driving the process.
CAT member Wendy Liscow, education program director for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, notes that the Dodge Foundation had been funding arts programs in Trenton for almost 20 years, indirectly through some of the nonprofits like Trenton Education Dance Institute, Trenton Music Makers, and VH1 Save the Music.
“In the past,” she says, “we were hanging shiny ornaments on dying trees to fill in gaps when arts programs were being cut,” implying that Any Given Child is nourishing the roots and making the “arts tree” strong again.
Dodge created the Arts Ed Data Dashboard to augment the data reported by Arts Ed of NJ, which conducts an annual census of arts education in the state. “The dashboard helps all of our grantees, and now Trenton, track detailed information about how much and what kind of arts offerings students receive. It also ties to survey tools that help measure impact on student emotional and academic growth. It helps grantees tell their own stories, and collective stories for New Jersey.”
“It’s exciting for us,” Liscow says. “We would not be dedicating funding if we didn’t believe the research on the impact of the arts.”
What might change going forward? “The district has embraced the concept of arts integration, which involves a strong arts curriculum, and certified arts teachers engaging other teachers to enhance learning in both subjects,” she says. “The collective impact model will engage parents and community members and deepen the community’s commitment to the arts. Any Given Child is really about connecting to the community.”
Because the CAT needed a strong coordinator at the center, Michelle Cox was recently hired in that position and is discovering all that is already happening as Trenton students gain a richer understanding of the arts.
She is heartened by the support from the district and the high participation rate in arts programs. Originally from Ohio, Cox speaks of the arts in Trenton schools as drawing a line to continued success after graduation. “It’s important for kids preparing to be competitive in the 21st century,” she says, referring to some entertainment management careers as using “math, science, language arts, not just performance.”
With a BA in theater and experience as an arts educator at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, Cox says, “What’s really important is positive visibility, that Trenton gets the same visibility as the suburban schools.”
Diaz, a practicing musician himself, believes the importance of Any Given Child is the access to quality supported arts and arts initiatives and sums up the effort with the simple statement, “It starts in the education system.”
For more information on the Any Given Child project, visit www.tpef.org/any-given-child.html or education.kennedy-center.org/education/anygivenchild/profiles.cfm