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Depriving students of the arts stifles real growth

I remember with perfect clarity the first moment someone showed me how to hold a trumpet.

I was in the fourth grade at Starpoint Elementary School, in a tiny practice room that smelled like dried spit and old wood. I remember the half-grimace, half-smile spreading across the face of my teacher, Karen Ragusa, when the first awful note squeaked out, sounding more like some sort of plumbing accident than the clarion blare of Louis Armstrong’s horn.

After that, I was hooked. I played every piece of sheet music I could get my hands on, joined every band I could, up to and including the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra, idolized every trumpet player who had ever put out a record and generally organized my life around the sound of blaring brass. By the time I hung up the horn in college to pursue a different career path, I was molded in major ways by music education.

Though I’m no longer a musician in any serious way, the opportunity I had in the fourth grade absolutely shaped me. It taught me and my fellow students about what it means to aspire to something, about the importance and rewards of practice, about the need for creativity, and even about my least favorite subject on earth, then and now: math.

But because of a series of decisions made in other musty rooms, in Buffalo and Albany and Washington, hundreds of Buffalo school students who might have had the same opportunity are being deprived of it. In Clarence, budget cuts mean that the middle school art program will now have more than 30 students per class. In Springville, the public school’s arts and music programs have seen major declines in recent years as attention turns to standardized testing and other methods of evaluation.

Marissa Lehner, a Western New York artist who has taught art in Clarence Middle School for three years, will lose her job in the wake of the most recent budget crisis in well-to-do Clarence. In her view, these latest cuts in arts programs in schools across the region are a sign of a growing disregard for arts education in American society.

“These kids, they need the art room as a place to be themselves. Yeah, it’s an incredible opportunity to learn technical skills and to push yourself and be creative and problem-solving that some classes can’t offer as well as art does, but it’s also about community,” Lehner said, stressing that parents and administrators have become hyper-focused on grades and testing at the expense of students’ individuality. “They don’t realize that the learning and what’s happening in the classroom is not just about a grade, it’s about growing up and becoming an individual.”

When you take instruments and paintbrushes out of the hands of kids, you not only impoverish them culturally and intellectually, but you remove one more of a dwindling supply of opportunities for individuality. The effect of any individual cut, I don’t think it is overstating it to say, is dehumanizing by small and mostly imperceptible degrees. Add all these little cuts up, though, and they become dehumanizing on a massive scale.

Fortunately for many students whose schools are slashing art, music and theater programs like so many insignificant line items, nonprofit organizations like Springville’s Center for the Arts, Buffalo’s Music Is Art and Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes, Young Audiences of Western New York, VH-1’s Save the Music Foundation and many others are stepping into fill the gap. But the important work these nonprofits are doing is not nearly enough to make up for the unending cuts in arts education in public schools.

Despite the maddening double-talk we hear from some administrators and taxpayers about economic necessity and population decline, many of these cuts are part of a continuing war against public education in this country. That war, spearheaded by political forces determined to ensure that the income gap in America continues to widen, is now entering a new and terrible phase.

Citizens should not stand for it, nor should politicians accept it, nor should any adult who has built his or her life in some small part because of the influence of the arts remain silent about it. Cuts like the ones playing out in Buffalo and beyond portend terrible things not only for the American education system but a country that increasingly and inexplicably maligns the culture that helped build it.