How parents can bring the creative arts into the schools
Waltham, Mass. — At School Street Elementary School here, they had ''A Riot in the Kitchen'' recently.
Crazily clad actors from Just Around the Corner Theater, a local children's theater troupe, were there to teach children about nutrition in an unusual way -- through a musical play.
Grades 1-6 were not only entertained, but had the opportunity to participate on stage while learning the value of wholesome meals.
At the rear of the school gym sat parents from nearby towns, quietly scribbling notes and deciding whether to invite these artists into their children's schools.
The out-of-town guests were at the school that day because they are members of the West Suburban Creative Arts Council, a group dedicated to enriching their children's curriculum through the arts. Last year, thanks to council support, ''A Riot in the Kitchen'' was one of more than 300 programs performed by visual and performing artists in more than 150 Boston suburban schools.
Given current cutbacks in federal aid, school officials wanted to be sure this reporter noted that ''not a cent of federal money'' was included in this effort. Instead, the council helped interested parent groups raise some $90,000 to fund arts-in-the-schools programs.
But such an involvement between the arts and the schools hasn't always been this way.
Pat Benedict, founder and president of the arts council, began her quest to bring the creative process into schools five years ago. While doing volunteer work for a local opera company, she became aware of the valuable activities the arts had to offer her children.
''The issue became of such interest to me,'' she explained, ''that I worked with the principal of my children's elementary school just to find people to come in and present programs.'' Later, she moved, joining forces with an established local arts committee.
After being named to head the group, she ''realized that every town had a few parents interested in this idea of how do we teach our children about the arts.'' She invited parents from six surrounding towns to come to her home.
Today, Pat Benedict's local gathering has become a kind of regional arts congress: the council's bimonthly meetings are attended by representatives from 43 public school systems and 8 private schools.
This ambitious president explains: ''Every community has to give a report and discuss anything they've seen.'' They share funding ideas -- walks for the arts, corporate support drives, and art-ins are a few examples -- and hear speakers who explore ways for schools to take full advantage of the many excellent artistic and cultural institutions of the area.''
Probably the most valuable service the council provides is its resource file, which contains critical evaluations and background information on all available artists. The members I saw at the Waltham performance were filling out a standard written form that listed the name of the group, where and when they performed, what age group participated, the cost, and the children, faculty, and parent response.
Any member may call the resource file chairman and request the information; as many as 25 written reports have been filed on a single artist.
The council's work has received frequent applause from participating schools and communities.
John Barry, assistant principal at School Street Elementary, likes the fact that the council's network of information allows an artist to be ''block booked'' for several shows at different nearby schools for a reduced price. Also, he affirms that past programs ''have been very well received'' and would like to have more because ''we think it's really important for the kids, and they enjoy it.''
Over the past year Mrs. Benedict has received a stready stream of calls from potential artists ''telling me that they have something to offer the schools in the form of arts education.'' She has also been asked to speak and/or give advice to other interested groups and individuals from as far away as Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.
For those interested in starting an arts council in their own community, Mrs. Benedict recommends garnering the school's support first.
Then, ''take a broad look'' at the range of arts activities in your community.
For beginners: ''Contact craft centers, theater groups, state or city arts councils, and any group that represents artists. Once one finds one or two strong groups, they will lead to other people who are interested,'' creating an ''artists' snowball'' that never stops rolling.
To gather parental support, she notes that once parents recognize that ''artists in an area have a vital dimension to add to their children's education , they can go out and convince others that it's worth raising money for and that it's worth giving time to.'' But with so many parents working, time is precious and short.
Mrs. Benedict counters, ''Even if a parent only had an hour a week, they might be able to contribute to a fund-raising project, whether it is running a fair, having a potluck supper, or scanning the daily press for potential school programs.''
Always seeking to inspire a few more parents into volunteering, president Benedict told a recent audience:
''Just as our children need to appreciate and to know how computers and the sciences may enrich their lives, they must have opportunities to participate in all the arts. The arts stimulate a child's imagination, satisfy his need for personal expression, and allow him new ways to communicate with others.
''Through the creative process he will master a more self-confident, productive self and gain a deeper appreciation of man's need to create something beautiful with his life.''