Commentary: 'No Child Left behind' leaves arts education behind

In 1995, Nicole Emanuel envisioned and then created a seven-foot tall bronze and steel Young Angels Memorial sculpture at High Grove Elementary School in Grandview as a tribute to children who died unexpectedly.

She also did a mural at the Rose Brooks Center when the shelter for battered women was in midtown. My then-preteen daughters’ visit to her downtown loft studio revealed a lot about where an artist does her creative work.

They were awed by Emanuel and how the loft helped her art come alive. My daughter Leslie even became an artist, graduating from Emanuel’s alma mater, the Kansas City Art Institute.

In the years that I have followed Emanuel’s work, her art has always been about community and social justice. It came as no surprise that Emanuel this month moderated the 2011 Starr Community Conversation — Work and Life: Who Does She Think She Is? Balancing Family Life and Creative Careers.

Her involvement in the University of Missouri-Kansas City Women’s Center and Women’s Council program fit the work she has done since graduating from the art institute in the mid-1990s. It has been a continuum of women enabling women in the arts.

The Starr Symposium panelists spoke about that, explaining how parents, teachers and others fed their desire to work in the arts.

Emanuel, who’s married and a mother now, helps ignite the fires of art at her children’s school just as she did for my daughters. But I worry today about children saddled with the No Child Left Behind law.

It makes no provision for the arts, which are not part of the reading, math and other proficiency testing.

The law is putting the arts on the endangered list nationwide in schools. That’s a tragedy because the arts give many children a reason to go to class and perform well because school offers the only outlet they have for music, dance, theater and painting. School field trips also expose students to art venues that they otherwise would never have.

But that exposure isn’t a given any more. Howard Martin, a speaker on the Starr panel, is an adjunct professor of theater at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and executive director of The Jellybean Conspiracy, a theater program designed for a world in which people act with kindness of heart toward children and young adults with disabilities.

He told the Plaza library audience that two-thirds of area students have not seen the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

With budget cutbacks, children aren’t getting exposed to other area art museums and may not get to experience the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts when it opens later this year.

That would be a tragedy. School trips exposed me to theater, classical music, ballet and museums, as they did for my daughters. Both took art classes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum when each was a preteen.

“When young kids see the arts, lights go on,” Martin said. The arts become a driving passion.

Jenny Mendez, who heads arts programming for the Mattie Rhodes Center as Latino cultural arts director, said working with children in the arts is a wonderful gift.

“With children, there’s never a mistake in art,” said Mendez, who also went to the Kansas City Art Institute. “There are no limits.”

State lawmakers have to realize this and expand funding for arts programs in school districts. District officials and teachers have to acknowledge the creative passion the arts ignite in children and devote an abundance of time to visual and performing arts programs.

Schools have to keep theater programs alive and bring in experts from the outside to give children pointers and inspire them as mentors. Preschools through high school visual arts classes must give kids the tools and time to do creative work and then display that art proudly so that everyone can enjoy it.

Individual patrons of the arts must invest in artists’ work so artists can afford to continue their risky endeavors.

From the Starr Symposium I learned that artists often create paths where none existed before for themselves and future artists. Art patrons follow, enjoying the beauty of the journey.