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Kennedy Center's Any Given Child Initiative Comes To Sarasota

. - Julie Busch Branaman
. - Julie Busch Branaman

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Educators and parents agree that participating in performing and visual arts enhances a child's creativity and academic success in all subjects. But in Florida's financially strapped educational environment that focuses on traditional subjects and compiling test scores, providing access for children to the arts is sporadic and most often falls to the non-academic community in outside-of-school activities and experiences.  

Robert Warren, director of education and community involvement at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, decided to do something about it.

Warren applied on behalf of the city of Sarasota for the opportunity to work with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. in its arts enhancement program called Any Given Child.

The brainchild of Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, Any Given Child is designed to help measure and develop an action plan for communities to enhance access to the arts and foster creativity in children in grades K-8, especially important in a new economy that elevates the importance of talent and innovation above all else.

Any Given Child leads business, government, arts and academic thought leaders through an analysis of the opportunities their communities offer students for exposure and participation in the arts.

Warren is now working with a 25-member consortium in Sarasota to see what can be done on the local level to enhance access to the arts and nurture creativity in Sarasota's children.

Sarasota's ability to provide opportunities for students to study the arts is currently supported almost entirely by its arts organizations, Warren says.

"There are zero dollars in our school system budget,'' he says. "What we've accomplished so far is all done by arts organizations that pump 3.5 million dollars’ worth of product into the schools to make busing available and provide teaching artists and professional development opportunities. All this is on the backs of art organizations and private donors. The Kennedy Center selected us because we have strong support outside of the schools. Any county can do this if they can use assets that are already in the community.''

Any Given Child's Roots

Since its inception in 2009, the Any Given Child program has helped communities in Louisiana, Texas, Oregon and California develop and implement action plans to make arts opportunities available by weaving arts into core subject lesson plans, providing funds for buses that ferry students to the theater and museums, and bringing teaching artists and performances into the schools.

Barbara Shepherd, director of National Partnerships at the Kennedy Center, says community involvement is key for participation in the Any Given Child program.

"Our mechanism for doing this work and getting the community behind it is to develop a team across many different [local] sectors. We ask applicants for a list of high-level people before we even agree to work with them. This team meets with a Kennedy liaison once a month for about a year. They ultimately deliver a long-range plan. It requires endorsement by the mayor, the school superintendent and a major cultural institution in the community.''

Making arts accessible to children, she says, is not really that difficult.

"It's about getting people in the community together to have these conversations and do the work.''

So what do residents of Sarasota have to say about how the arts can contribute to the next generation’s success in the global marketplace?

A Student Perspective

Lauren Bebak, Jobana Cristiani and Setierah Preston are students at Brooker Middle School, a Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) magnet school in Sarasota. Each is convinced that exposure to the arts will contribute to her future success.

"If you have at least a small bit of art in your background, it will help you attain a higher job,'' says Bebak, 15, as she sat in the school's art gallery. The sounds of an orchestra rehearsal going on next door penetrated the wall between as she spoke.

Fellow eighth-grader Crisitani, 14, agrees. "No matter where I go, I think I'll always have an advantage with my art skills because being an artist makes you think differently than most people do. You think out of the box. You don't have a narrow perspective. You think about everything -- not just about what's here [in front of you].''

Preston, 13, says her participation in the visual arts program is helping her with her math, which she says is her weakest subject. "It gets me down in some ways because I can't do as well as some people. So I have to push harder. But my art still does help me because if you get a word problem, you look at it and you see the picture in your mind and you see what’s happening -- this is what's going on. It helps me.''

A Teacher Perspective

Herbert says her visual art lesson plans envelop core subjects such as math, science and language arts on a daily basis.

"I don't teach my subject in isolation of the other subjects,'' says Herbert. "Artists respond to the world, they don't just respond to a mood. They respond to their culture and what's happening. So we're constantly addressing how we are thinking about art in words, which is language arts; how we see the world visually, how we measure and how we analyze, which is science and math; how we physically build things, that’s engineering.''

A Principal Perspective

LaShawn Houston-Frost, principal at Brooker, says she saw the arts as an opportunity to increase and expand teaching when she left her job as assistant principal at a Sarasota high school to steer the ship at Brooker.

"It's an opportunity to really get teachers to understand what arts integration looks like and what will cause our students -- every child -- to be engaged in the learning process. This is an opportunity to do that.''

And, arts integration doesn't require much from educators, she says. "You don't necessarily have to change what you do, you just tweak it.''

A Business Perspective

Bradley Goddard, a banker who serves on Any Given Child's Sarasota community arts team, says the arts are a valuable asset not only for education but for community development and growth.

"One of the first questions a corporation asks is, 'What's the quality of the schools?' '' says Goddard. "Public school perception is huge in our ability to attract new business. And the more people who come here and stay, the better for business.''

A Parent Perspective

Of the four children living in Penny McCray's household, two are struggling with attention issues.

"I think that the way they struggle with math and science -- given their attention spans -- that anything creative would be a help,'' says McCray. "The traditional music class at the school isn't even reaching my son. So if there are other ways to use the arts to reach him that would be awesome.''

Missy Kavanaugh is a professional freelance writer based in Safety Harbor, FL. In addition to contributing articles for 83 Degrees Media, Missy enjoys writing children's books, helping children and adults reach their creative potential and kayaking the waterways that surround the Tampa Bay area. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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