On Friday afternoon, more than 700 students lined the half-mile stretch of sidewalk between the Bennett Park Montessori School on Clinton Street and the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church.
In a procession that must have seemed an odd sight to passers-by, each student carried a decorated shoe with a plant inside it, each one meant to symbolize a step along the historic Underground Railroad which once ran along a similar route on Buffalo's East Side.
The event was the culmination of "We Are Are Buffalo," a yearlong project at the school led by teachers working with the local arts-in-education group Musicians United for a Superior Education. The wide-ranging program gave students an opportunity to hone their skills in writing, research, math, science and social studies through the engaging prism of the arts.
The "Shoe Pot Project," which taught students about the important role of the Michigan Avenue church in the nation's history and the work of beloved community activist and gardener Rosa Gibson, is just one example of creative arts-in-education programs threatened by a decline in funding both locally and at the state level.
Elsewhere in Western New York, schools have hosted teaching artists from CEPA Gallery, Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and Shakespeare in Delaware Park, along with educational groups like Young Audiences. These groups, members of the local Coalition of Arts Providers for Children and funded through a $22,000 New York State Council on the Arts grant program called "Art$tart," are struggling with a shrinking pool of funding while continuing to do the vital work of inserting arts-in-education into the gaps in our broken education system.
The projects have ranged from revealing the hidden meaning of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter to students at Tapestry Charter School to empowering students new to the United States to learn creative writing at St. Monica's School in South Buffalo.
What's more, a May report from the Center for Arts Education, a national advocacy group, noted that about half of Buffalo public schools reported their arts education funding was insufficient and on the decline even as the overall education budget has increased.
And that's a problem, some advocates say, because the presence of arts in public schools is not only a benefit for things like self-esteem and communication skills, but a proven benefit to student achievement in other academic areas. Though some experts dispute the notion that the arts translate significantly to broader academic success, Lucinda Ingalls, executive director of MUSE, argued that teachers in schools where her organization works see the arts as indispensable.
"Kids that are failing in other areas and succeed in the arts make believers out of the teachers," Ingalls said.
Now, the trick is to make believers out of the funders and politicians -- a much tougher sell. It doesn't help that the New York State Council on the Arts -- itself struggling and now in the midst of a major transition -- decided last year not to fund local arts education groups at anywhere near their past levels even while sustaining funding for New York City-based arts education groups.
That decision, when it happened, smacked of political motivation. The state council, claiming the quality of Western New York arts in education grant requests had suddenly dropped off, has yet to make a convincing argument to the contrary.
Understandably, local groups like MUSE and CAPC do not want to be seen as biting one of the few hands that feeds them. But for the sake of the students they serve across Western New York, they deserve better.