Arts & Culture

Arts in Public Schools: Essential. Life Saving.

This is dedicated to that Little Girl who experienced the first part of life in such a hard way who used to retreat to her world of books and daydreams […]

closeup of child's hand doing art, daubed with paint

Mindaugas Danys, via flickr, CC BY 2.0

This is dedicated to that Little Girl
who experienced the first part of life in such a hard way
who used to retreat to her world of books and daydreams just to help her survive the day…


Schools are not always emotionally or physically safe spaces for children, and the lower-resourced the community, the more stressors there are for children to deal with. The lower-valued the school and community, the truer this statement becomes.

When I was a primary school student, literature and the arts were understood to be essential to the overall growth and development of a child. They were understood to provide value to the educational experience, and teachers and administrators knew that the world was not all math and science. Imagination, along with the ability to think critically and analyze, were just as important to the development of society and industry as the “3 Rs,” and that literature, arts, and physical fitness were non-negotiable building blocks in nurturing well-rounded individuals.

This is dedicated to her
the one who traded in words until life
choked the voice out of her
The one who, mute, closed her eyes and began to
paint on the masterpiece that would become her blueprint for life
using all the words on which she choked and left unspoken
This is dedicated to that Little Girl …

With the rise of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the testing rigors of No Child Left Behind, and budget cuts, academic electives such as music, drama, and the visual arts have been reduced or dropped altogether in schools, although in a 2011 study, an overwhelming majority (83 percent) of teachers affirmed the belief that “… electives are necessary–they give students something to look forward to and are essential to a well-rounded education.”

As tragic as it is, being relegated to the back burner of the educational experience (or out of the curriculum entirely), and further removed from all students’ experiences in general, cuts to the arts are particularly devastating for public school children in under-resourced communities.

In high poverty urban and rural schools—often in neighborhoods of color—a narrowed curriculum means decreased exposure to those life-saving creative outlets that could mean the difference between a student getting through the day or their day becoming an unrelenting gauntlet of torture.

It also means that youth in healthier-resourced schools have yet another leg up in the game of life and better chances for success than their lower-resourced peers, simply because their parents/guardians have the resources to compensate for what our public schools no longer provide.

The result for all students, however, is the loss of safe spaces in which to learn about life and connect what you are going through personally to the larger human condition through reading literature, participating in drama, pouring your discomfort or experience into a poem, giving visual expression to emotion—all to learn that you can come out the other side stronger and whole.

Does this sound overly dramatic?

Anyone whose emotional safety and sense of self was nurtured and saved by an arts curriculum will know that it is not, and a wealth of studies and reports backs this up.

For each time we were broken by life’s circumstances
you picked up the pieces and rebuilt me
out of each joy and sorrow, a better model
wiser, more flexible, more patient and accepting

Arts education is not only essential to youth, but to the adults that youth will become. It provides a foundation for life and provides a road map by showing them how others have done it historically.

A STEM curriculum can teach skill sets that are geared toward workforce functionality. An arts curriculum teaches us how to live. That is not a disposable elective, but an essential one.

So this piece is dedicated to you, Little Girl
who held fast to that little mustard seed of faith, planted it
nurtured it and birthed the woman that we’ve grown to be
So with gratitude, love, and respect, Little Girl
This is dedicated to you.

From the poem, “This Is Dedicated To …” by A. Adar Ayira

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