I happen to be one of those lucky people who can honestly say that dreams do come true. Being able to work with my husband, Tony Bennett, has been one such dream. Together we founded a nonprofit organization, Exploring the Arts (ETA), to transform the lives of young people through arts education. After more than a decade in New York City, where we have supported the arts programs in 14 public high schools, Tony and I are celebrating ETA's expansion this year to three additional schools in Los Angeles -- another dream come true.
On this occasion of our nonprofit's expansion, at the start of another school year, I find myself reflecting on the quality education our nation's children deserve. Naturally, testing and standards will come up, but when they do let us not forget the arts -- those subjects that excite our students, sparking in them a desire to explore, create, contribute and leave their mark.
As a former public school history teacher and the wife of an artist, I understand firsthand the value of an arts education for our students, as well as the important role artists play in our society.
Tony is not only an accomplished singer and painter, he is also a humanitarian. He is an activist for peace and equality. From marching for civil rights with the great Dr. King 50 years ago in our nation's capital, to raising money for public school arts programs, to joining the fight to end our growing epidemic of gun violence, Tony's devotion to social justice and "giving back" is born of a profound and special empathy.
The arts teach empathy. The arts express and evoke emotion, enabling us to feel how others feel and find common ground. The arts help eliminate prejudice by encouraging multiple perspectives. And of course, the arts entertain -- they can be fun!
When the arts are taught in schools, great things happen: Young people are excited for school each day. They discover new joy and confidence as they develop their creativity. School communities are transformed, as students are able to work collaboratively and celebrate the creativity and accomplishments of their peers. A growing body of research demonstrates that students perform better in their more standard academic subjects.
True learning is developing the ability to make connections, to think critically, and to interpret. When a child can understand line and form in a poem, then relate that to line and form in a painting, or in music, a creative thinker emerges.
I know all of this to be true because I have witnessed it firsthand at the public arts high school I founded with my husband, Tony Bennett, which we proudly named in his best friend's honor. The students at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens eagerly attend school each day because of a curriculum that offers majors in theatre, film, dance, music and art. They are actively engaged in their schooling, inspired and empowered by their learning.
The success of Frank Sinatra School of the Arts drove our decision to expand Exploring the Arts to serve 16 additional public high schools throughout New York City and Los Angeles. ETA works collaboratively with our Partner Schools to help them build sustainable, quality arts programs by providing strategic planning and funding support. We intentionally expanded to schools serving low-income students, for whom the "achievement gap" is all-too real. While we know that an arts-enriched curriculum will not enable these schools to surmount every challenge they face, we fully believe in the arts' ability to inspire student engagement and build community within these schools.
Not every child will possess a natural talent for painting or piano. Even those who do may still opt not to pursue a life in the arts, but they will have had the opportunity to experience all of the pleasure and pride that accompanies creating and presenting artworks. They will have gained greater confidence in their voices. And most important of all: They will have nurtured an empathy for others that is arguably the single most important "skill" we should hope they carry with them as adults into this increasingly globalized and complex modern world.
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