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Baltimore public schools ramp up programs to help students 'speak their truth' through art

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Zshekinah Collier
Baltimore City Neighbors High School Steel Pan Band performed during an Arts Every Day event.

As a kid, Baltimore visual artist Ky’Mera Pauling, would always ask for art supplies instead of toys. Pauling, now a senior in high school at Baltimore City College near the Waverly neighborhood, enjoys creating art in her free time. Pauling said that giving youth a chance to create art in the classroom can change lives, especially for young adults who may never get a chance to express themselves.

“It's always been a form of expression,” she said in a recent interview. “When I was younger, it was just a way for me to express myself in various ways, and kind of convey things that I could not say with words.”

For her, art is an important tool to communicate with her own community and beyond.

“If you have a piece of art, people can just look at it and interpret it on their own. I feel like that reaches more people, and you're able to communicate with more people,” she said.

Baltimore City Public Schools has struggled with precious few certified fine arts teachers in the district for years. In 2018, there were 218 art teachers but two years later there were 174 art teachers – roughly one per school with hundreds of students to serve. Some schools simply didn’t have any art classes to offer students.

Julia DiBussolo, executive director of Arts Every Day, said the dearth of talent inspired her nonprofit to launch the Baltimore Arts Education Initiative in 2017. The Baltimore nonprofit collaborates with the school district to help carry out its five-year strategic plan to improve and broaden arts education.

“The district has gained over 100 arts teachers since that time, and that's after almost a decade of losing arts teachers and losing arts programs across the city,” DiBussolo said.

The goal is to ensure not just access to the arts for students, but equitable access, according to Arts Every Day.

Baltimore City Public Schools expects to approve new rules that will enshrine arts education for future generations with an expected draft 'equity addendum' to be finished by the end of the school year in 2023.

All Baltimore schools should have “adequate funding for supplies and equipment, opportunities for students to showcase their work and high-quality professional development for the certified fine arts teachers that are teaching,” the executive director said.

Baltimore City Public Schools’ fine arts coordinator Chan’nel Howard said the plan is to set high standards for arts in the classroom. That means hiring more teachers.

“If you have one to 250 students in your building, then you need to have at least one full-time, fine arts staff member hired,” Howard said.

It’s about improving the ratio of art teachers to students, she said.

“Without people that will appreciate art making, [the practices] will die out,” she said.“We don't set out initially to create or to empower the next Basquiat or the next Van Gogh. That's not really what we set out to do. [But] I think that when we do arts education right, that happens.”

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Courtesy of Baltimore City Public Schools
During the 2022 through 2023 school year, about 93% of Baltimore City Public Schools offered art classes to students, up from 87% during the 2020 through 2021 school year.

Baltimore City College high school student Amari Davenport said that art enables him to be free and play with various forms, from fashion to photography, even tickling the ivory piano keys.

“The arts, in general, have always given me a space of expression that I've never really had, whether it be with family, friends, or really anyone,” Davenport said.

Art students have used their experience and research to raise awareness of the need for arts education and garner the support of legislators, donors and school officials.

In the past month, students have organized and held a town hall to discuss the progress of the school system’s strategic plan with its top brass and CEO Sonja Santelisis.

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Zshekinah Collier
During the 2017 through 2018 school year, there were 174 certified arts teachers across the entire Baltimore City Public Schools system, a particularly low point.

Last school year, Baltimore City Public Schools invested $2.9 million in arts education funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act and the state Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Concentration of Poverty Fund across more than 150 schools. The district plans to spend a similar amount this school year.

Art is powerful, said Pauling, the youth artist who was inspired in school to keep creating something new.

“Everything is art,” she said. “So why wouldn't we want to fund it and keep it alive?”

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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