01/24/2011 09:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Arts Education = Safer Schools and More Prosperous Communities

This week my kids' public elementary school, a high performing school in a "good" neighborhood, was in lockdown (again) for violent intruders on campus. These were young adults, loitering on a street corner at 2:30 p.m., and evidently on some type of intoxicant. One parent was assaulted, but no children were hurt. Still, on the heels of three school shootings in Los Angeles county just this week, it was enough to make me wonder, not for the first time, if I can keep my kids safe at school while I work. Before quitting my job, though, I considered the crisis state of education in this county, the fact that in Los Angeles 1 in 3 students drop out of high school, and I felt reassured that I am probably doing the best thing I can do to keep my kids safe and sound by helping to ensure that all children have access to the arts in school.

Because whether I work or not, my children, like nearly 700,000 other children in Los Angeles Unified, will spend at least a quarter of their waking lives between ages five and eighteen at school. Given that fact alone, there is no question that what happens in school is critical to children's health, wellbeing, and future success. And in Southern California, the creative capital of the world, and one of the most economically and ethnically diverse states in the union, a good education means one that includes the arts. Here, and really pretty much everywhere, kids need to learn to get along with each other and otherwise be good citizens. They also need to find a place in this modern society, where innovative thinking is the most valuable commodity. The arts help kids accomplish both.

According to UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Sciences professor Dr. James Catterall, participation in the arts makes kids more likely to do well and do good, in school and into adulthood. The arts support children's development of empathy, increase their engagement in school, and teach the essential skills needed to be successful in a creative 21st Century workforce. In an interview with P.S. ARTS, a Los Angeles arts education nonprofit, Dr. Catterall puts it this way, "The arts, in opposition to what passes for school curriculum these days, brings personal values and beliefs into things we want to know about."

Even if you don't have kids, or don't think your kids are "at risk" for becoming dropouts, consider that people who don't finish high school are four times more likely to be unemployed. Over the course of their lifetimes, dropouts from 2008 will cost California $42.1 billion dollars in lost wages. Dropouts are also more likely to be living in poverty, on public assistance, in prison, and on death row. With a graduation rate of less than 70% in Los Angeles, this does not sound like a foundation for a strong civilization.

So what to do? Obviously, decreasing the dropout rate is a complicated issue, and I would be incredibly remiss if I didn't acknowledge, and express my deep gratitude for, the heroic measures LAUSD educators are taking to keep kids in schools, like increasing pupil support personnel, and creating more opportunities for kids to connect with higher learning institutions. It also also notable that in study after study it is lack of engagement in school, not lack of aptitude, that kids give as the number one reason for dropping out. Putting aside all other benefits of arts education, the power to engage kids in meaningful learning that is applicable to their lives, is a strong case for keeping the arts in schools. In fact, it was a story from a co-worker about the powerful draw of the arts that weighed heavily in my decision to move across the country and commit myself to the arts education field. This is Alex's story...

About ten years ago at a dinner party honoring Paul and Mary Ann Cummins, visionary leaders in education reform, one of the women at my table told me a story that brought home why I became a Teaching Artist. She was an administrator at an urban public middle school - one of the first beneficiaries of musician and philanthropist, Herb Alpert, and Mr. Cummins' charitable venture to restore arts to public schools. They had implemented a choral music program, and despite the concern that students in this school, in a neighborhood struggling with gang violence and high crime, wouldn't be interested in being "choir boys," the class was very popular. One young man, Alex, who, at best hadn't showed much interest in school, and at worst was often in trouble for delinquent behavior, seemed to especially find his niche in music class. Alex was engaged in school for maybe the first time ever, but it wasn't until he faced not being able to go to music that they understood how much. Alex would get antsy in the stretches between music, and sometimes revert to old habits. He was suspended from school for disruptive behavior. At a faculty meeting, the music teacher looked surprised when the subject of Alex's suspension came up. She hadn't realized he had been out of school for two weeks, because he had been in music, singing right there in the front row. As it turned out, Alex had been sneaking back into school to go to music class.

I am fortunate to hear dozens of stories like this every year. We call them Magic Moments. They are the moving narratives that make it easier to make the hard decisions, leave the kids in childcare, forgo that job with the big salary, or sacrifice time with our loved ones. They are the stories that remind us that, ultimately, what we do to protect and restore arts education to schools is going to empower our youth, keep them in school, and lead to a safer, more prosperous community made up of ordinary heroes. In that spirit, I am happy to share with you these images from a fourth grade art class... Just one of many examples of how the arts inspire innovation, and bolster children's ability to imagine themselves as one of the good guys.

Superhero Drawings by Fourth Graders

P.S. ARTS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving children's lives by bringing arts education to underserved public schools and their communities.