When "Mr. Holland's Opus" aired on the Sunday Disney movie in February, I cried at the end. My kids thought it was human sentimentality and didn't understand the deeper meaning: I was mourning over the early '80s slaughter of arts programs, a loss which affects us still. So you can imagine how heartening it was to learn that others shared my grief, but had done something about it. I discovered Project ARTS (Art Restoration Throughout the Schools), a city-wide endeavor to restore arts programming to our public schools.
Launched in 1997, Project ARTS began when Mayor Giuliani made $25 million available for the funding of arts programs in our city schools. Had the money been spread equally among every school, it would have amounted to a mere pittance for each. So Giuliani, together with Chancellor Crew, developed a three-year roll-out plan: 13 high schools in Queens participated that first year, and by the end of 1999, every New York City public school will have had the opportunity to benefit from Project ARTS funding.
By distributing capital this way, the schools which opted in first have been able to take real advantage of the funds. At the K-8 level, financing has largely been used for equipment, supplies, and outside contractor services; while at the high school level, nearly 90 percent of the budget has gone into personnel. This benefits schools such as Hillcrest High School here in Queens, which has quadrupled both its art and music staff over the past years. Hillcrest and the other participating schools have expanded their curricula from minimal freshman art or music requirements and a handful of senior electives, into full-scale programs. This has provided more than just options; it has given the sequencing required for the serious artist and the career-tracked.
Hillcrest, for example, now offers four levels of band (the highest of which is a concert performance group); chorus options (including a Gospel choir); an enhanced theater arts program; and a range of visual art specialties such as mural painting, fashion design, medical illustration, cartooning, commercial art, sculpture and art history.
Dom Scarola, assistant principal of Hillcrest and its Project ARTS coordinator, spoke about how Project ARTS has changed the outlook for our youth. "New York City is the theater capital of the world," he says, "yet almost all the talent feeding into it was coming from everywhere but New York. Now we have the resources to develop the wealth of talent here at home."
Hillcrest is only one of several Queens high schools which have reaped the benefits of Project ARTS. Other participants include Bayside, Francis Lewis, John Adams, Grover Cleveland, Long Island City and Jamaica. Project ARTS has had such a measurable impact on the arts orientation at these schools that three of them have also become Annenberg Schools (qualifying for a grant from the foundation established by the art patron and philanthropist of that name). Though many statistics on Project Arts have yet to be fully collated and analyzed, attendance figures for 9th grade in the 13 schools which participated the first year indicate a three percent increase. Furthermore, these schools have restored sequences to their roster (as did Hillcrest), and can now cultivate talent to a level deemed acceptable by higher art/music schools and colleges.
According to Scarola, while band instruments and art supplies have been a significant part of the change, the most integral factor has been the teachers themselves. Hillcrest hired teachers with strong backgrounds, who were active practitioners of their craft, then built a dynamic curriculum around their strength in a particular medium.
Perhaps the most resounding praise for Project Arts comes from its Queens director, Stan Nussbaum, who says, "Project Arts has brought the heart and soul back to our schools. We are now educating the total child."