Students study impact of arts education

BOWLING GREEN, O.—While the rest of the country may not be thinking of Hurricane Katrina very often these days, musicians remain painfully aware of New Orleans’ woes. The state of the arts and the well-being of the city are inextricably entwined.

Six students from the Bowling Green State University and seven from the University of Michigan who recently spent two weeks in the Crescent City. They are all members of Arts Enterprise (AE), a group devoted to linking the arts and business for mutual benefit and, unlike the many who have gone to help rebuild destroyed homes, their mission was to help improve public education.

Dubbed AE4NOLA, the project volunteers were a cross-disciplinary team from a variety of backgrounds including business, music, dance, law and public administration. They worked through New Orleans Outreach, a nonprofit organization providing volunteer-based educational programs to charter schools in the New Orleans school district. These new, community-based schools have largely replaced the traditional schools, which were failing badly before the storm and are now being run by the state.

“New Orleans Outreach provides a number of services in the schools including remediation and tutoring,” said AE co-founder Dr. Nathaniel Zeisler, the BGSU chapter advisor and a bassoon faculty member in the College of Musical Arts. “We worked with NOO for a year to determine what their needs were and what our students could best help with. It was really important to us to hear their needs loud and clear before we even thought about coming down.

“One part of its large, strategic effort is arts education,” Zeisler said, explaining that NOO uses teaching artists in its after-school enrichment programs, which have mandatory attendance in some of the schools. “We were looking at the impact of the arts within the schools themselves as it relates to students’ standardized test scores, attendance and grades. The big question was ‘What is their capacity to serve the schools effectively?’ The goal was to give NOO a solid plan at the end of the day.”

The AE4NOLA team conducted interviews with students, teachers and parents in the seven charter schools of Orleans Parish. Zeisler and the team are working on synthesizing the results of the study and plan to deliver it to NOO by the end of the summer.

Objectives met

“The trip succeeded beyond my wildest imagination,” Zeisler said, a sentiment echoed by other participants. “We have an invitation to come down again to work with the same organization or with a partner organization.”

The experience proved even more profound than expected. “Two of our team members stayed down there when the rest of us came back—it was that powerful,” said Kristen Hoverman, a second-year flute performance major from Van Wert who is minoring in entrepreneurship.

Working with NOO changed her view of the job market, she said. “It opened my mind to what possibilities are out there. As a musician, you think you must get that job with the orchestra or teaching at a university, but I’ve seen a whole new world of teaching artists and nonprofits that bring music into the schools. It’s also become clearer that advocacy for the arts is really important.”

She said she was also bowled over by the quality of the music produced by low-income students who have not previously had serious instruction. “Through NOO, kids who could not have had the chance to take acting or dance lessons can study with working artists and have a creative outlet. What was really impressive was how the teachers were able to engage the kids through the arts and how the kids responded.”

Team approach

Though the AE group was comprised of people chosen for their leadership abilities, “the team worked extremely well together, and the group interaction was great,” Hoverman said. “Everyone was on board with what we were doing and passionate about it. People stepped up when they needed to and stepped back when they needed to.”

“It was a big experience in togetherness,” said Sarah Griffith, a public administration major from Wooster and a graduate assistant with Partnerships for Community Action (PCA). “We had 14 people sleeping in the same room and cooking in a communal kitchen, but we found a good balance.”

Laying the groundwork

To prepare for their trip, the Arts Enterprise volunteers had extensive training in classroom observation and assessment. They also met three times with Dr. Pamela Jenkins, a sociologist at the University of New Orleans who is involved with NOO. Jenkins came north to familiarize the group with the context in which they would be working and then took them on the “disaster tour” once they arrived in New Orleans.

While in the city, the team also immersed itself in the area’s arts and culture, attending the annual Jazz Fest and other events and sampling the local cuisine. Partnering with one of the Michigan AE members, Hoverman arranged the “cultural tourism” aspect of the trip.

“We wanted to get out of the French Quarter a bit and see more of the city so we could get more of the history and the context of where the people we would be working with are coming from,” Hoverman said.

In addition, the group did spend a day rehabilitating homes damaged by the hurricane, and met with community leaders in the arts and business.

What they found

There is great competition for resources in New Orleans, Griffith said. While there is still debate among the community and business members about how to proceed and whether the city should be the same place it was before Katrina, she said, “the storm was a catalyst for change that rocked everything to its foundations. Now there’s the opportunity for people to take things in a different direction if you have the gumption.

“There are some very heavy issues that exist outside of what we would normally experience up here in Bowling Green,” Griffith noted. “It’s very difficult for policy makers.”

Before they left Ohio, she predicted “this will be a baptism by fire. A lot of us are from this Midwest experience.”

That did turn out to be the case, Zeisler said. “There were some really low moments. People were angry and saddened and not expecting some of the things they saw.”

The group engaged in regular reflection times in the evenings to interpret what they were seeing and work through their feelings. Jenkins also facilitated discussions on race and class. “I think the best and one of the most striking things about the trip was that we came away with more questions than we had before we went,” Zeisler said.

Merging creative arts with business savvy

Arts Enterprise was brought to Bowling Green by Zeisler, who with Genteel and fellow classmate Kelly Dylla co-founded the completely student-run organization in fall 2006 when they all were students together at Michigan.

“It’s an exciting collaboration between music and business,” he said. “It helps the business students get in touch with their creative side. There’s a lot of attention being paid to that now. It’s predicted that that’s what the future workplace will look like as we move to a knowledge-based economy—a blend of arts and business. We hope to give Arts Enterprise students a common language that will enable them to work together."

Moreover, arts students can learn the entrepreneurial skills necessary to be successful in the business world and to thrive within their own communities, he added.

In addition to the PCA grant, the group did its own fund-raising, receiving support from the College of Business Administration and the College of Musical Arts, Zeisler added.

“We think we’re on to something in terms of a service-learning project,” said Zeisler, who is already looking forward to repeating the trip next spring.

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Media Contact: Bonnie Blankinship, Marketing and Communications, at 419-372-2618.

(Posted June 23, 2008 )