Nonprofits, Milwaukee Public Schools Partnering for Arts Education

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March 11, 2013; Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

How often have we heard the tale that when there is a need in the community that is not being answered by the public or private sectors, it is the nonprofit sector that steps in and gets the job done? This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on yet another example of this scenario, as nonprofit organizations are making up for the lack of arts experiences in local public schools. The Milwaukee Public School district (MPS) currently has approximately 80,000 enrolled students but only 81 full time arts teachers, or roughly one arts teacher for every 1,000 students. Although MPS hopes to raise that number to more than 100 teachers next year, it is increasingly turning to partnerships with nonprofit arts organizations to fill the void.

For example, Above the Clouds, a free, faith-based arts program, is active in eight centers around the city, offering after-school dance programs and other arts opportunities to students. Danceworks, a performance troupe with a great reputation in Milwaukee, is active in as many as 45 schools throughout the area, offering programs both during and after school. Amy Brinkman-Sustache, Danceworks’ director of the education, told the Journal Sentinel, “What we try to do is accommodate, if we can, to what they are doing in the classroom and what we can tie into the curriculum.”

According to the Journal Sentinel, teachers, administrators, parents, and students alike are happy to see that some form of arts are being offered to young people attending MPS schools. With that support, and research backing up the importance of arts in a well-rounded education, it is intriguing that art, dance, and theatre are often the first programs to be cut when a district faces a budget shortfall. Donors are also stepping in by offering matching grants, adding to what MPS can invest in these partnerships. This community-wide response helps ensure that the arts do not get lost in all of the focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

In related news, the budget proposed by Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) projects little or no increase in funding to public schools over the next two years while maintaining limits on school districts’ ability to add to their annual budgets through property tax increases. Once again, we see the nonprofit sector stepping in. The Journal Sentinel reports that the United Performing Arts Fund, a workplace giving program, has vowed to increase its financial support to arts education programs in 2013. –Rob Meiksins

  • David Roche

    Wisconsin used to be one of the most progressive arts education states in the country. VH-1 “Save the Music” supported credentialed music teacher band programs in all 60 of the Milwaukee elementary schools. Has this disappeared?

    Public-private partnerships for arts education are challenging enterprises even at the best of times. School districts tend to be very open to nonprofit support of arts so that they are relieved of that expenditure, and when that funding faces a sunset, programming and arts personnel may be gone for good.

    A workable and balanced compromise is to restrict private arts funded programs to after or before school programs at public schools while making sure that the arts are well represented by credentialed arts teachers as part of a holistic curriculum during the school day. Do not give up on supporting credentialed arts teachers in the public school system. So many well-intentioned partnerships end up as covert privatization programs that effectively eliminate dedicated music and visual arts teachers from the public school system forever, except at those schools with a legacy of exemplary arts teaching and learning.

  • Milwaukee Arts

    Worthy of mention here is the unique funding structure that was created by Milwaukee Public Schools to support afterschool and summer arts and humanities programming. Check it out:
    Not intended to replace day school specialists, but an innovative solution to expand access to art for students and build the capacity of the non-profit partners through financial support from the district!