On July 9, 2015, student artists and performers, along with educators, arts education leaders and ED staff gathered at the Department of Education for a ceremony to open an art exhibit featuring over 60 works by students in 30 schools from the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD, Texas). Given the title “Through Our Eyes” by the students, the exhibit honors the importance art has for them in their community.
SAISD is an urban school district serving approximately 54,000 students. Of those, 95 percent are Latino and the vast majority come from low socio-economic backgrounds (the whole school district is Title I-funded). But Luz Barraza, a principal at an early childhood center in San Antonio, warned against categorizing the students as “at risk.” Instead, she said, “we need to view our students as really resilient.” One needed only to glimpse at the students’ work in both the visual and performing arts to recognize the truth in those words.
During the opening, students from the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, the only all-girls public school in the district, performed dance pieces focused on the theme of influential, empowering women. One piece, “The Story of Rosa Parks,” opened with a young dancer seated in a chair, her wrists in handcuffs, reading a newspaper whose major headline was about the undoing of the violation of civil rights; as she twisted her way across the stage, the dancer threw off her chains in defiance. In another piece, a trio danced to a poem by Maya Angelou. With legs lifting and heads swinging in unison, it was easy to see that each one was, in Angelou’s words, a “phenomenal woman.”
Texas, so often associated with strong high school football teams, also has a rich history of honoring the arts. In fact, every elementary school student in the state must have 45 minutes each of art, music, and theater instruction every week, and every high school employs three full-time teachers in the arts ̶ visual arts, music, and theater.
Omar Leos, the district’s coordinator of visual and theater arts as well as the organizer of the exhibit and the students’ trip to D.C. for the opening, attributed the prominence of the arts to the fact that there are so many art contests in the state. People realize that athletics are not the only grounds for competition, “the arts can compete, too,” Leos said. SAISD’s school board vice president, Arthur Valdez, was also very proud to be able to say to those present that his school board had just funded eight new full-time art teacher positions for the elementary schools in the district to ensure that every child will have an arts education.
Indeed, the arts have played an important role in the lives of many students. According to Leos, data collected by the district found that the students involved in the fine arts performed better on both discipline and attendance measures. For many of the students at the opening, the arts were also a way of expressing what might be hard to put in words. One young woman explained that her abstract piece, “Transcendence,” was about her mom, who passed away in 2007, transcending to heaven. The transition from dark to light across the canvas symbolized her own passage to happiness. Another artist, whose piece featured a self-portrait overlaying a smattering of text, reflected that the words and images she painted were things she often ruminated about; putting those thoughts on paper helped her stop overthinking them.
In addition to learning how to communicate emotions clearly and powerfully, artists learn “how to take a critique, … how to build up and play to the strengths of their peers, … and how to stand up and defend their work and their value.” These “things that make great artists,” Lucy Johnson, the Department’s deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach and former mayor of Kyle, Texas, told the audience, “also make great leaders.” She concluded her speech by encouraging the students to “never stop thinking and behaving like artists.
Malkie Wall is an intern from Middlebury College in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.
More photos from the event may be viewed on the Department of Education’s Flickr site.
The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public space that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at email@example.com.