Our Opinion: Arts funding grant is good news for many

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As one parent aptly put it during a rather rancorous school budget meeting last year at Berkshire Hills Regional School District: To cut arts funding in Berkshire schools is "like Palo Alto schools defunding their computer science program." Indeed, the arts are to the Berkshires what computer technology is to the San Francisco Bay area. It's one of our defining characteristics, our lifeblood. Unfortunately, due to rising expenses, decreased state funding, and a shrinking and increasingly aging taxpayer base on fixed incomes, arts funding has become a perennial budget scrum for many of the county's public schools.

Against this backdrop comes good news in the form of a $740,000 grant awarded to four Berkshire school districts over the next four years from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement ("Four districts get $750K for arts instruction," October 13). The money will help provide professional development in the areas of music, dance, drama, media arts and visual arts for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in North Adams, Adams-Cheshire Regional, Pittsfield and Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public school systems. The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the Berkshire Compact will lead the project.

The grant, which includes the approval of $144,245 for the Berkshires in this first year of its cycle, does more than provide a few teachers with some professional enrichment opportunities to bring back to their classrooms. On a larger scale, it incentivizes and validates the sorts of partnerships that have developed over the years between our public schools and key community cultural institutions such as Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Museum, Berkshire Theatre Group, Clark Art Institute, Jacob's Pillow and Mass MoCA, among others.

Under the grant guidelines, those organizations will be initial partners helping to train teachers. The consequences of bolstering the arts programs in these districts should prove to be invaluable on a number of levels. Indeed, over the years, study after study has proven that schoolchildren exposed to the arts, to drama, music and dance, are often more proficient at reading, writing and math. They think more creatively. They are strengthened in the areas of problem solving, teamwork, motivation and self-discipline.

What we also know is that students from lower income families often get little exposure to the arts if they are not provided by the school system. To that end, the four school districts included in the grant have student bodies of which 50 percent come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ideally, over the course of the next four years, the program will become self-sustaining so it is not at the mercy of the next grant cycle. Kudos to all four school districts and to the many Berkshire arts institutions whose outreach has helped solidify not only the critical role the arts play in our local economy and identity, but also in our classrooms.




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