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Opinion: Every Utah schoolchild deserves arts education

It’s well documented that the arts have positive impacts on a child’s mental, social and physical health

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Students are given the red-carpet treatment as they arrive for the first day of school at Altara Elementary in Sandy on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

Students are given the red-carpet treatment as they arrive for the first day of school at Altara Elementary in Sandy on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Before tabernacles and temples were built, the pioneers organized events and built spaces for theater, music, dance and art. In fact, Utah boasts the first state-funded arts council in the country.

We continue this tradition today, with Utah being consistently rated in the top three states for arts participation in the nation. The Utah State Board of Education has a plan to provide every child in Utah an education that includes the arts. 

Why do the arts matter so much for kids? It’s well documented that the arts have positive impacts on their mental, social and physical health. According to Crystal Young-Otterstrom, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance, students are “more likely to be civically engaged, or more likely to graduate and more likely to have higher grades when they participate in arts and humanities education, and so it greatly, greatly benefits all Utahns. It’s quality of life, but it is also life.”

What happens when the arts disappear from schools? As standardized testing became a priority, parents, educators and students discovered how rough a school day can be without music, art or dance when the arts were the first thing to go. Schools suffered. Children suffered. Beverley Taylor Sorenson, philanthropist, educator, and arts advocate, knew that her grandchildren — and all of Utah’s children — would need an arts-rich education to flourish. 

Filling the gap and creating opportunities for every Utah child to access arts-integrated education meant significant and widespread change. Sorenson believed the arts are an essential part of a child’s education and should be an integral part of a child’s life, not just a one-off activity to check off after the “real” subjects were covered. Sorenson enlisted the help of the Legislature and Utah’s universities. 

Since 2008, Utah State Board of Education has implemented the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program to hire arts educators in select K-6 schools across the state. However, currently, less than half of Utah’s K-6 kids have the arts as part of their education. Sorenson’s dream — to assure every child in Utah receives an education rich in the arts — is taking a giant leap forward as board works with legislators to fully fund the program and hire qualified arts educators in all K-6 schools. 

Additionally, Sorenson and her family have assured quality implementation of arts education through endowments at seven universities in Utah: BYU, Southern Utah University, Utah State University, the University of Utah, Dixie State University (Utah Tech soon to be University), Weber State University and Westminster College. Representatives from these universities coordinate with teacher education programs and provide professional development to teachers and administrators to elevate the quality and quantity of arts and arts-integrated learning, and collaborate to implement top research in the field. 

The BYU ARTS Partnership is one such program, providing professional development to over 1,000 educators/administrators per year, reaching 100,000 children and sponsoring initiatives such as the Native American Curriculum Initiative in collaboration with Utah Native Tribes, and Arts for Life in collaboration with the Utah arts education professional organizations to collect stories from Utah students about how the arts impact their lives.

Do you know what is happening in the schools of the children you know and care about? Do your children receive quality arts learning experiences? Please let your legislators and your school leaders know that you value the arts. Let’s work together to ensure every child benefits from an arts-rich education with access to qualified arts educators in dance, drama, music, and visual art. Where there are arts, there is creativity, growth, and joy!

Cally Flox is the founding director of the BYU ARTS Partnership, where ARTS stands for Arts Reaching and Teaching in Schools. Visit advancingartsleadership.com to access lesson plans, blog posts, podcasts, and social media links for educators and parents. 

Heather Sundahl is a writer and editor with the Native American Curriculum Initiative for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and The Exponent.