by Michael Bowen

High school jocks bask in their friends' adulation; students in the arts are considered nerdy and marginal. The reality, of course, doesn't match these stereotypes. But an examination of the way the fine arts are supported in Spokane-area high schools suggests that while much is being accomplished, obstacles remain.

As a case in point, Tom Armitage has taught drama at North Central High School since 1979, and he has observed the ways that students, parents, teachers and administrators subtly favor sports over artistic pursuits. Armitage has some complaints: While he has innovated programs at NC that spotlight the value of theater education, "My feeling is, in athletics, things are just handed to them. The coaches will say to me, 'Oh, yeah, I just got that' -- but I have to ask for things.

"For a sport, they have assistant coaches, and that's good," Armitage continues. "When I do a musical, I have a vocal director and an instrumental director helping me. But I had to pay for a choreographer this last time out of the drama budget. And I could use an assistant director, and somebody to coordinate costumes.

"Compare that to all the assistant coaches' jobs. We don't get as much."

Kevin Hartse, music director at Shadle Park High, puts our national sports mania in perspective and makes clear that, despite that, instructors in the arts aren't about to sing a woe-is-me tune: "It's never going to be the same -- that's just cultural," Hartse notes. "Our top scholars just don't get the same kind of recognition. It's a cultural thing. But there's no animosity. I don't sit around whining about how come that football coach gets all that attention. We've accomplished a great deal in our music program, and the kids know that, the parents know that."

On the one hand, says Hartse, "We worship athletes. People don't go to church on Sunday any more. But by the same token, most people recognize that the fine arts are the epitome of our culture -- of our higher culture, as opposed to popular culture."

Some of the finest expressions of American popular culture, meanwhile, have come from sports, from inspirational stories of athletes' dedication and achievement. After having played -- and later, coached -- three sports in high school, after two seasons as an assistant college basketball coach and 12 years as a high school basketball official, I'm not about to bash high school sports programs (even after 12 years of being told by coaches and fans that I was blind, stupid -- and worse).

Sports taught me important lessons: how to demand more of myself than I thought I could give, the way that intense preparation breeds confidence during competition. Far from trashing sports, I agree with Glenn Williams, Mead High's head basketball coach, when he "gets all corny" about the value of athletic competition. "Sports teach everything that life teaches," Williams avers. "It's the human condition played out in an arena: working together, dealing with stress, setting goals, leadership, poise under pressure, the importance of effort."

But participation in the arts is at least as important in helping kids turn into well-adjusted, productive adults. There are clearly more careers in the arts than openings for professional athletes. So the question I put to area educators is this: During and after school, are sports and the arts truly regarded as equally important?

Money Matters -- Effort -- important effort -- is being put forth by students in local high schools' arts classes. Yet during an economic downturn, there are constraints not only on the schools, but on the students themselves. Wallace Williams, principal at Rogers High School, pinpoints the problem when he says that, "Participation in co-curricular activities is an economic decision today, whereas it was not 10-15 years ago." The problem crops up especially in the Rogers attendance area, Williams notes: "It's a real challenge for our kids, who are in the medium-to-low income range. They have to pay for insurance and other expenses like that -- it adds up."

Some of the apparent funding disparities derive from the difference between co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Terren Roloff, community relations and communications manager for Spokane Public Schools (SPS), defines them this way: "For co-curricular activities, which take place both during the regular school day and after hours, we provide stipends for travel and special events. For extracurriculars, which take place strictly before or after school, there are stipends for coaches and we pay for travel to districts and regionals."

Yet support for the arts in the Spokane Public Schools may not be as rosy as some would have us think. The stipends compensate faculty for the extra time they spend with students outside of school hours. But as for an actual budget that could be spent on a program's actual activities -- at least according to some SPS teachers -- there are only zeroes to look at.

Bryan Jackson, who teaches theater at Lewis & amp; Clark High School, asserts that, "I get no budget. It was that way for many years, when I started. There were a couple of years, back in 2001-02, when I actually got $2,500 a year. But then the cuts came, and since then I've had no budget.

"So we do fundraisers," he continues. "And ticket sales -- but most plays only cover costs. As a matter of fact, we have kids working on a benefit here coming up in two weeks."

Susan Hammond, who's involved in fundraising activities at LC and is a parent of a student at the school, refers to that same benefit when she notes that "They have an auction there that raises thousands of dollars, and nearly all of it goes to the athletic teams. When you add up all the [sports] programs, they receive [the majority] of those funds. And then there's a tiny bit for drama."

That fund-raiser, does, however, buy new band uniforms.

As development director for the Spokane Civic Theatre, Hammond has credibility on fundraising matters -- but she has another question, too. "Why isn't drama offered before 9th grade in District 81? That's pretty late for drama to be offered as an elective."

Randy Ryan, who was (until last year) activities coordinator for the entire district, explains that whether performing groups have a budget at one school or another is something decided by ASB officers, by the students themselves. "But usually," Ryan adds, "the administration influences the student government decisions."

However, Williams, the Rogers principal, refutes the no-budget claim: "That's not true, at least here. You have to understand that something like instrumental music is an academic subject, an elective, taught during the regular school day. So we support it just in that way, like all of our other academic courses. Music offers evening performances, and we subsidize portions of those programs through our regular academic budget. We also charge at the door."

Hartse of Shadle Park chimes in with widespread financial difficulties: "Funding is a huge issue," he says. "There's just not a lot of money. Everything's been cut. The district is $5 million in the hole. As for my music budget, there's been a 30 percent cut in all departments, across the board."

Glenn Williams, Mead's basketball coach, says, "I get $1,800 a year. That's mostly for uniforms, partly for tape, other needs. We try to cycle through our uniforms every two, three years."

At Shadle Park, granted a different school district, Hartse has to purchase 100 outfits for the marching band, instead of just a dozen basketball uniforms. Still, the last time Shadle bought new uniforms for the band? "Eleven, 12 years ago," says Hartse.

Back to Basics (like art) -- Still, it's undeniable that local high schools promote the visual and performing arts. One long-term change signals that the value of arts education is being taken seriously statewide. By 2008, all high school graduates in Washington state will be required to have a full year of fine arts instruction, meaning practical experience -- not just a lecture course -- in instrumental or vocal performance, in theater, or in studio art. This graduation requirement won't kick in until freshmen start arriving on campus next year.

Local arts teachers agree that their students are learning something worthwhile, and that the arts stimulate greater intellectual achievement. Hartse, the music man at Shadle, notes that "the National Association of Music Educators has reams of stats showing that kids in the arts, in orchestra, instrumental musicians, score higher on the SAT. It's simple: If you're in the arts, you're going to do better."

Frankie White, an arts teacher at Gonzaga Prep, specifies those findings: "It's well documented," she says, "that for every year you spend in the fine arts in high school, you go up 20 points on the SAT."

As a theater teacher over at Central Valley High School, Michael Muzatko has been impressed by how versatile his students have become. "They're multi-tasking," he says. "The think on multiple levels. Some brain research has shown that students in the arts simply think in a different way. Their spatial thinking is different, they have better intellectual problem-solving ability, and that's been proven at the national level in studies."

Not only is arts education valuable, but there are numerous and encouraging local examples of thriving, high-quality high school arts programs.

At G-Prep, White is justly proud of how the school has promoted arts education. The state may not require fine arts for graduation until the class of 2008 matriculates, "But here at Prep, we do require a year of fine arts for graduation, and have done so since '82," says White. "The most common way to fulfill that requirement here is in our entry-level, 9th-grade Principles of Art course, which covers drawing, painting, computer skills and design. And we've had an AP studio art course here for 15 years -- that's just unheard of."

Over at Spokane Public Schools, Dave Weathered, district coordinator for music, can point to the annual "Festival of the Arts in November at the Opera House, when the kids practice for two days with college instructors and composers, both vocal and instrumental, and then they put on a free performance. We bring in the bands, orchestras and choirs of the five high schools in the district."

And at least two local districts are renovating their physical plants in impressive ways, improving opportunities for theater instruction in particular. Even Jackson, who has languished without a budget for drama at LC, can't complain about the school's new auditorium: "Since the remodel, [administrators] have really supplied what we need. I mean, there's 850 seats in that auditorium. And it's state-of-the-art: It's very expandable in terms of lights, and we have a full workable fly to bring down backdrops."

Over in the CV district, both high schools have brand-new $4 million theaters with nearly 600 seats and gizmos to spare. "In technology," Muzatko says, "nobody can touch us. I mean, we had the guy who runs the Opera House in here, and he said we have stuff here that even they don't have. For example, we can project a digitized CD image all the way to the back of the stage from the light booth, and with crystal clarity."

Expensive new theaters that can serve community needs in addition to the schools' needs, along with the greatly expanded opportunity to teach the practical applications of the behind-the-scenes, tech side of theater, are a wonderful testament to how educators are truly embracing the centrality of the arts in high school curricula.

Hartse sums up the general attitude: "District 81," he says, "has been very positive in support of the arts in the region."

Cheerleaders needed -- Still, with respect to the way athletes are sometimes lionized in the schools, we seem to be sending mixed messages to students who are focused on the arts.

At Rogers, principal Williams cites the value of convocations that recognize extracurricular achievements of various kinds: "We have what we call our cons in fall, winter and spring. They're more than just sports -- the drama students and the choir perform at them. There are no awards given out, but that's true for the sports teams, too. We may introduce the starters for the teams, but that's it."

But the other Williams -- Glenn Williams, the coach in the Mead district -- is sensitive about academics because he doubles as an English teacher: "We have academic awards," he notes, "but that's not the same as a pep rally. Those kids are just not celebrated in the same way. I'd say that that kind of recognition for our academic achievers is woefully lacking in our high schools."

Armitage, the NC drama teacher, has much to say about acknowledgments of the arts -- and how they might be improved. North Central holds four pep rallies a year, and like most such events, the focus at them is on sports. His students in drama, Armitage relates, "always say, 'No, I don't want to go. Why do we have to go cheer them on?' But I say, 'How many letterman's jackets do you see at plays?' And they have to admit, quite a few."

That's a healthy exchange -- jocks supporting the artsy types and vice versa -- and at NC, it results from some innovative ways of highlighting the arts.

Certainly his most labor-intensive innovation is The Doll Shop, a kind of vaudeville and talent show held once every three years that draws hundreds of NC alumni back to campus for the big production numbers. Everyone who auditions gets a part, and Armitage remarks on how energizing that can be for the current drama students at NC: "I'm going to do The Diary of Anne Frank next fall, and that'll have nine or 11 parts, but a hundred kids will try out, and even with the backstage crew, that's still only about 25 spots altogether."

The Doll Shop carries on a theatrical tradition at NC, but Armitage also teaches respect for the performing arts with a more direct method -- and one that other schools might do well to emulate. "My philosophy is to educate kids about the theater by getting them in it, or getting them to see it," says Armitage.

At the fall convocation at NC, he directly exposes hundreds of students to a theater experience. He's proud of how the auditorium-theater at NCHS has stood up to 22 years of use, and recalls that, "We were so excited in '81. We have all the original furnishings in that theater. We have taken very good care of it. But I'm also very aware of just how crappy audience behavior is these days. So in the fall, we have a convocation, and we basically teach them theater etiquette. The overriding message is that there are different kinds of audiences: TV, opera, rock concert, movies. We ask them to think about the role you're playing when you are a theater spectator. So we teach good theater behavior through skits, and they're funny, with examples of audience behavior, both good and bad. And then we do a scene from one of our plays. And they get an appreciation of what it means to attend a play."

The triennial show, the lesson en masse at fall convocation -- both are effective means of catching students' interest in the arts. Yet sometimes teachers lead by example, by combining within themselves enthusiasms both artistic and athletic, projecting to students that both are pretty cool.

Coaching teachers -- Game day, 8:15 am. Fourteen hours later, at Gonzaga's Kennel, Glenn Williams' undefeated Mead Panthers would lock up a spot in the state tournament with a victory over Ferris. But now, during the first period of the day, it's time for a college-prep English class, because Williams is also a Language Arts teacher at Mead. He reads, as an essay prompt, a piece by one of the parents involved in the Columbine shootings. Students are contributing metaphors, figures of speech, methods of making simple sentences more complex, all drawn from the essay. The lesson is fast-paced, the students attentive. Williams had been apologetic -- "game day, I'm not sure much is going to be very profound" -- but it's clear that he's well prepared and that his students are not only learning but also enjoying themselves. At one point, Williams has his creative writers playing with language, making up words like "ecocide" and "misosuiphobia."

We stroll to the faculty break room. That night, Williams would do another, very public kind of work in front of 4,000 witnesses, but right now his mind is on teaching. He waves his arms, speaks rapidly, gets animated about the idea of making students more accountable for their writing by composing short, well-supported essays that they read aloud in class. He scoffs at five-paragraph essays and at other typical teachers' habits: "We spend too much time just assigning and not enough in actually helping them, showing them how to do it. I have a friend -- he's a coach, too -- calls it 'stealth grading': We assign essays, then we go away and hide. We go off somewhere and grade their essays quietly, in private, and never give them any face-to-face feedback."

Williams counters the stereotype of the coach who only knows how to teach p.e. by citing some of his colleagues at Mead -- head varsity coaches who teach Advanced Placement history, college-prep science, honors English and creative writing. He counters the stereotype in another way, too, by combining the roles of teacher and coach.

Booster shots -- A comparable stereotype -- that the arts don't amount to much at working-class schools -- is shattered by the example of the Instrumental Music and Dance Team Parents' Club at Rogers High. Barb Wall is president of the group, and she reports that "we have about 10-20 parents active. For marching band competitions, we pay for fees, buses, overnight stays, that sort of thing. Our fundraising activities include working a concession stand at Avista Stadium during the Indians' games; at Silverwood, when they have special events, we provide additional staff; and we have candy sales.

"Our biggest challenge is getting enough instruments," Wall continues. "Getting instruments to kids is huge. Most of our students don't have private lessons. So to get them in with professional clinicians in music is important. We compete with bands that have perfect uniforms, and they've all had private lessons since they were 3. Our kids are district-taught. They don't have private lessons. They don't have those advantages."

In concrete terms, then, what might be done to improve the lot of the arts in local high schools? Students, parents, teachers and administrators should consider meeting to brainstorm innovative ways of funding the arts and students' artistic endeavors. The example of the Rogers booster club demonstrates that many parents are working overtime to make sure that the whole child gets educated, not just the athletic side.

Clearly, more could be done to valorize the achievements of students who take risks onstage, or in vocal ensembles, or by exhibiting their experiments in 2D and 3D art. When teachers and administrators essentially say that the arts also get recognized at pep rallies because the band plays during those sports-focused events, the disparity seems evident. Would the school's hoopsters be content to shoot a few baskets over on the side while everybody else was whooping and hollering over those award-winning sculptures and that awesome wind ensemble up onstage?

Clearly, with their broad-based convocations every quarter or semester, several schools are making an attempt to level the playing field so that the kids in drama and music don't slip off. And that's a healthy trend.

Cultures can change, and there are teachers and students working now, in the imperfect world of the arts in Spokane-area schools, to effect that kind of change. As Tom Armitage declares, "It's not that there's a lot of people who hate the arts. They just haven't been a priority in the last 100 years. It doesn't have the high profile that sports do. So it's up to us to educate. I love that the job's not done. I love it when I turn some kid's parents into theatergoers."

Spending -- Spokane Public Schools (SPS) trumpets the fact that in the 2002-03 school year, it will spend $6.6 million on theater, music and the visual arts, as compared with $3.1 million on extracurricular sports. (These amounts cover salaries, benefits and discretionary spending in the areas of supervision, teaching and extracurricular pursuits.) But other factors are at play. These are district-wide numbers; among its 50 schools in all, SPS oversees five high schools.

A varsity football squad requires a bit more in the way of equipment and travel expenses than does your typical first-grade kickball team. Naturally, the district as a whole spends more on bands and theaters, which are spread throughout the middle schools and elementary schools as well, much more extensively than large-scale athletic teams.

The fine arts and music are part of what the district refers to as co-curricular activities: taught during the day, but also, on occasion, enjoyed outside school hours as well. Sports, on the other hand, are entirely extracurricular.

Nearly $2.9 million this academic year will go to salaries and benefits for those faculty and staff who are involved in supervising extracurricular athletics, and even more in fine arts and music (because so many faculty teach those subjects as part of the regular daily curriculum).

But perhaps the most telling comparison comes in the area of what is called "discretionary spending." Randy Ryan, formerly with SPS and now the Greater Spokane League secretary, explains that most of these funds cover expenditures for bus transportation and rental of facilities. In that case, athletic teams must be doing a great deal more traveling than the performing arts students who also represent their schools off-campus: For sports, the discretionary funds amount to just over a quarter-million dollars; for music, $22,500. For the fine arts, including both drama and the visual arts, that figure is zero.

Statistics, naturally, can be interpreted in various ways. But the district's comparison of $6.6 million for the arts and only $3.1 million for sports points out only one kind of perspective on the status of arts instruction in local schools.

Publication date: 03/13/03

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.