With schools slashing budgets to the bone, the arts are often the first area to be cut. Fortunately, parent group members with fond memories of their own art classes, museum trips, and school plays are stepping in to help make up for the losses. PTOs around the country are immersing students in a wide variety of arts experiences, from extravagant, days-long celebrations featuring professional performances to make-it-take-it, volunteer-led projects.

In Fayetteville, Ga., the Peeples Elementary PTO devotes five consecutive days to Cultural Arts Week. Instead of going to classes, students rotate through six venues, spending 45 minutes at each. They might watch a ballet company or an Irish dance group, learn how to tie a Japanese kimono, or do calligraphy, all without having to leave the school.

The PTO’s $4,500 budget pays about 20 artists who participate. Expenses range from a $50 outlay for supplies, up to $900 for what cultural arts committee cochair Amy Nyman calls “a big group of four to five performers in full costume with all the bells and whistles.”

“Cultural Arts Week is our signature program,” Nyman says. “We believe in the power of the arts. It has the potential to transform the lives and learning of young people.”

At the Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, Mass., the Arts Equinox program is shorter—just two and a half days—but also relies on a combination of professional artists and local volunteers, according to Stacey Batista, PTO treasurer and former copresident. In addition to a professional Hula-Hoop troupe, there’s a local kite builder, a vice principal who teaches kids how to make papier-mâché masks, a parent who runs a bakery and teaches cake decorating, and a high school hip-hop group.

In Alpine, Utah, the Mountainville Academy Family School Organization relies exclusively on volunteers for its annual arts festival. Each year’s festival at the public charter school features a theme and is promoted with life-size drawings of students in their school uniforms with caption balloons. Volunteers change the captions every few days for two to three weeks prior to the festival.

Students are invited to submit entries in different categories, including drawing, photography, music, and writing. They’re rewarded a prize for each submission, such as a bouncy ball from a big jar in the library. Winners receive medals at an evening ceremony at week’s end, when students also perform. All of the art, photography, and literature submissions are put into a published book that is donated to the school library. The week also includes hour-long after-school workshops taught by community volunteers.

“Originally the volunteers were people we knew or friends of friends who are artists,” says FSO member Debby Llewelyn. “But some are cold calls. There was a West African drummer we didn’t know, but he came for an hour after school. He has a charity that he drums for that the 5th graders got involved with for their service project.” Other volunteers have included a local photographer, a portrait painter, an author, a recording artist, and a community theater director.

Learning From the Greats

A more modest effort to expose students to the arts was created by Lisa DeLillo, a parent volunteer at Sicomac School in Wyckoff, N.J. The school had an arts program where parents created presentations about artists for students, but it required a lot of volunteer effort. So DeLillo took it upon herself to make a master set of 18 slide show presentations with related activities that parents could use. “I have zero artistic ability,” she says. “I enjoy art a lot but can’t draw. I was the perfect person. If I can do it and make something that looks good, anybody can.”

She focused on American artists whose works or life story would hold special interest for children and lend themselves to a creative, kid-friendly project. For example, after a presentation on architect Frank Lloyd Wright, students created their own floor plans. To emulate Andy Warhol, students were given four photos of actor Tobey Maguire on a transparency, then stuck different colored post-it notes behind each photo. After learning about Christo’s installation of fabric “gates” in New York’s Central Park, children created their own environmental art by wrapping their desks in colored paper.

A similar approach is used by the Jacob Wismer Elementary PTO in Portland, Ore., in its art literacy program, except that the lessons were created by the school district and a different artist is featured each year. One was about Dale Chihuly, known for his glass sculptures. “We went so far as to take plastic plates, paint them with special paint, and melt them in toaster ovens to create the idea of a glass sculpture,” says Melissa Gilley, past PTO president. “Then we drilled holes in these pieces and strung them for a permanent installation in the media center.” These displays have multiplied over the years. “Our school has amazing works of student art every-where,” Gilley says. “Walk in and have no doubt that we love the arts.”

The Wismer PTO is especially creative at finding support for its arts programs. They’ve secured grants from local and regional arts councils and the Beaverton Education Foundation. They buy recycled materials from a downtown warehouse. They ask families for donations of items such as scrap fabric or masking tape. They contact parents who own businesses (screen printing, office supply, lumberyard) that might have leftover materials, such as plywood that could be used for a new stage backdrop. A music teacher secured funds for a drum set by posting a request at DonorsChoose.org, an online educational charity.

Some schools sponsor an “artist in residence” program, where an artist spends a week or more at the school teaching students about a particular art form. The Wismer PTO, for example, hired a local songwriter and pianist to work with children to write music and lyrics for a different song in each classroom. Then he recorded himself singing the songs, producing a CD that parents could buy, and each class performed their songs with him at a concert. “It was a highlight of the year,” Gilley says.

Turning the Spotlight on Performing Arts

Some arts activities focus on providing opportunities for students to perform. The PTO for the Pompositticut and Center schools in Stow, Mass., invites students to lip-synch on stage to a pre-approved song of their choice in an evening performance, complete with parent emcees and corny jokes. “The purpose is to give kids the opportunity to get on stage and perform for the school,” says PTO cochair Paul Trunfio. “For many, especially boys, it’s their first opportunity of that sort.”

The Mountainville FSO supports a drama club for younger students and runs a school play committee which pays $500 stipends to school staffers who serve as the director and assistant director. It also pays for props, costumes, and programs. Mountainville also supports four weekly after-school storytelling workshops, where students learn from professional storytellers. Then students try out to perform before a schoolwide assembly.

One of the challenges of arts enrichment activ-ities is that they take away from the time teachers need to cover the required curriculum. So it’s important to involve teachers in the planning and, if possible, to use the arts as a way to reinforce the curriculum. That’s the mission of New Eagle Elementary in Wayne, Pa., says PTO president Stephanie Smith. When 1st graders are studying Africa, an African drummer is an appropriate kind of supplement. To help 3rd graders extend their understanding of Native Americans, they help build a 12-foot tepee on school grounds, then gather inside to hear Native American stories.

Arts programs can require many volunteers, so parent participation is vital. “The biggest thing is to advertise ahead of time for volunteers,” Llewelyn says. “Parents are happy to volunteer but need to know when and where rather than relying on them to call up and say ‘What can I do to help?’” Another challenge can be space. At Woodridge Elementary in Cranston, R.I., says PTO cultural arts coordinator Danyel Evans, “We have 350 students but we only have a small cafetorium, so we have to pay performers for two shows.” Her group has tried to coordinate per-formances with another school to receive a discount, but that hasn’t worked out yet.

To find artists, canvass your school staff and your parents for hidden talents (either their own, or among their friends and family members). Then contact local businesses that offer classes in dance and other arts. Put in a call to your school district office, which may have a list of resources. Then contact local agencies that book artists. Once you’ve found your artists, keep in mind that those not used to working with children may need some guidance adjusting their program for different age groups. Nyman remembers a man who came to teach about yoga. “He was going to do a demonstration the entire time instead of letting the kids do yoga,” she says. “One of us stepped in and said it would be wonderful if the kids could do it. We led the artist to some extent.”

However you decide to expose your students to art, know that any experience at all is going to be of great benefit. As Gilley says about the Wismer PTO’s philosophy, “We value art. Our kids don’t get enough of it.”


Why Arts Matter

Research shows that exposing students to the arts has tremendous benefits in the classroom and beyond. Perhaps most impressive are the direct academic boosts in reading and math. Students who act out a story are better able to understand and remember it, for example. Those who play a musical instrument in the orchestra or band perform better at math, perhaps because learning rhythmic patterns is akin to wrestling with equations. Proof of these abilities has been shown in SAT scores, where students who took arts classes fared better than those who didn’t.

The arts also hone young peoples’ ability to think critically, creatively, and abstractly. Consider how the challenges of dancing and drawing push students to stretch literally and figuratively in these highly desired ways.

In fact, a child’s entire school experience can improve due to exposure to the arts, helping foster such social skills as empathy, self-confidence, and self-control as well as giving students extra motivation to persist and excel. The arts offer a space where students can take creative risks and express themselves safely, where they can make discoveries they might not stumble upon anywhere else.