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In effort to grow, Springfield's St. Joseph Catholic Academy unveils fine arts emphasis

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Trying to attract new families, a private school that has deep roots in the Springfield community has unveiled a new fine arts emphasis.

St. Joseph Catholic Academy, open to students in preschool through eighth grade, is expanding its art, music and drama offerings during the 2018-19 school year. The school hopes the new focus will catch the eye of parents with young children.

Enrollment at the close-knit academy, which started as a one-room schoolhouse in the late 1800s, has hovered at 70 students in recent years.

The new school year starts Aug. 16.

Principal Bonnie Johnson acknowledged adding a fine arts focus — and hiring a full-time art teacher — may appear to be an unconventional decision for a school with a limited number of employees.

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“Oftentimes, small schools, where do they cut? They cut their fine arts,” said Johnson, who is starting her sixth year as principal. “We need fine arts. It helps with fine motor skills, gross motor skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving.”

The move was inspired in part by a visiting artist last fall. Ibiyinka Olufemi Alao, who was born in Nigeria, spent time at St. Joseph.

“The kids were inspired,” Johnson said. “They loved him.”

Johnson said she was moved by how the students reacted to Alao and the artwork they produced following his visit.

She said the school board supported expanding fine arts options so it becomes a school emphasis.

For example, choir was offered a couple of days a week after the end of the school day.

The academy, which charges tuition on a sliding scale based on family need, is starting a choral expression program for students in preschool through third grade with a full-blown choral program for students in grades 4-8.

“The little ones will aspire to be like the older ones,” she said. “This is going to be daily.”

More: Missouri State spending $1.6 million to buy 52 Steinway pianos

Johnson also backed hiring a full-time art teacher for the first time in recent memory. “I have been here 16 years, and we’ve never had an art teacher.”

The school, which has staged musicals in the past, will start putting on plays.

The “Exploration Stations” started on Friday will continue with an emphasis on fine arts. They allow students to explore various topics including cooking, photography, archery and writing books.

“We choose things that we love so that love will be passed on to the students,” she said.

St. Joseph, along with many Catholic schools across the country, has struggled with a decline in enrollment.

Johnson said the school’s enrollment has remained fairly flat with about 70 students in recent years, which has ensured small class sizes, but the school wants to increase its student count to 100 or 110.

She hopes the emphasis will help with recruitment. She said fine arts will enhance but not overshadow academics and spiritual development.

“I hope it draws in some of those students interested in fine arts,” she said. “Plus, I love my kids and I want it for them.”

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Visual Arts – Aug. 16

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BAXTER

Chameleon Café

18196 Highway 371

Crosby artist Nora Novotny’s work is on display at the Baxter cafe and the Holy Yoga studio in Crosby.

BRAINERD

Brainerd Public Library

416 S. Fifth St.

Artist Gloria Leonard’s sketches and paintings on display through Oct. 31.

The Crossing Arts Alliance

711 Laurel St.

Featured August artist is Susan Manchester

“Lakes Area Music Festival Through the Lens of Dave Boran’ Exhibit” to be on display through Sept. 1 in TCAA gallery. For more information visit crossingarts.org.

LITTLE FALLS

Morrison County Govt. Center Gallery

213 First Ave. SE.

Local artists, weekdays, ongoing.

Great River Arts

122 SE. First St.

“Mississippi Icons” featuring Mary Solberg and Wesley Sod on display.

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Why arts journalism matters: because art matters

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Comments made in 1974 during an interview with the French writer Roger Errera and published in October 26, 1978 issue of The NewYork Review of Books Interview.

Today, hundreds of newspapers across the US are publishing editorials about President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against the American press, which he regularly refers to as the “enemy of the people”. His vitriol is usually aimed at the news media, but even in the relatively sheltered niche of arts journalism, we can see the effects—and not just from the online comments and occasional angry phone calls we have received from those who do not like the unflattering light in which artists often paint the president. This matches Trump’s own apparent stance on culture; at best he seems to view the arts as a vehicle for self-aggrandisement, at worst a waste of tax-payers’ money.

If journalists are afraid, self-censorship begins to be practised before actual censorship, and it is just as dangerous to a healthy body politic. Like the rest of the press, the arts media must not be ignored or bullied into pulling its punches. The art world is full of powerful people who wield their influence widely, sometimes for public benefit, sometimes for personal profit, just as in the political sphere. There is plenty of overlap between the two motivations, and there are dark corners where bad actors can take advantage of a lack of government regulation or close public scrutiny.

Arts journalists are there to exercise that scrutiny, to give a platform to artists and draw connections between communities. For artists are in the vanguard of addressing the subjects that lead Trump to yell “Fake news”, such as climate change, racism and sexual exploitation. They are one of the most potent tools we have to speak truth to power (aside from voting, which everyone who can in the US should do in November). Arts journalists must feel themselves free to back up artists in their pursuit of truth and justice.

Helen Stoilas is the US editor of The Art Newspaper

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Without An Arts Education Coordinator For Massachusetts, Advocates Are Concerned

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As Massachusetts schools prepare to implement sweeping changes in arts education, the position of a key administer is currently empty and its fate remains uncertain.

Lurline Munoz-Bennett retired in June, leaving the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools (DESE) without an arts education and equity coordinator, a position she held for more than a dozen years. DESE’s hesitation to name a full-time replacement for the role has arts educators and advocates concerned that there will be little oversight for the implementation of a statewide initiative that started in 2017 to improve arts education and of a new arts curriculum expected to be finalized this year.

Munoz-Bennett’s job is currently being divided between existing positions, according to Jacqueline Reis, media coordinator for DESE. “The position involved responsibilities in two areas,” her statement reads. “The arts education work, which is substantial as we have just begun the process of collaborating with educators to revise the 1999 Arts Curriculum Framework, is being taken over by a different member of the Center for Instructional Support. The equity work, and specifically the job as serving as staff liaison to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Racial Imbalance Advisory Council, is being handled by the Center for Educational Options.”

Asked to clarify whether the role of arts education coordinator would be permanently folded into another job, DESE spokesperson Jessica Leitz responded that the fate of the position has not yet been decided. “It’s my understanding that hiring decisions will be able to get underway again now that the state budget is finalized,” she said via email. “DESE is fully committed to the Arts Curriculum Framework revision.”

This comes at a crucial time in arts education for Massachusetts: 2017-18 was the first school year that districts across the state operated under new state education guidelines written in response to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan federal education law passed in 2015 that explicitly includes instruction in the arts in the definition of a “well-rounded education.” However, the implementation had been slow, in part because of the death last year of Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester.

Even before these changes, Munoz-Bennett’s job was never simple. “She has been the glue that has held a lot of disparate elements together,” said Charles Combs, president of the nonprofit arts advocacy group Arts Learning and the liberal arts chair emeritus at Berklee College of Music.

He describes Munoz-Bennett organizing curriculum sessions, where he and his colleagues would make presentations about arts integration and the arts curriculum. “These served as professional development opportunities for the teachers and administrators who were attending,” said Combs.

Beyond such formal gatherings, “she was a connector,” he said. “She was consistently engaged in trying to get the arts in the schools for the children because it was a crucial way of learning, a way of knowing and a way of communicating in another symbol system beyond language and numbers.”

Redefining her former position makes sense, Munoz-Bennett said. “The equity piece is not necessarily about the arts,” said the retired administrator, explaining that she had carried over that role from her earlier work in the department. Coordinating arts education, however, ”should be a full-time job,” she stressed, noting the many different facets of the new curriculum.

Any delay could work against the department’s forward momentum, say arts education advocates.

“We are developing a really robust set of standard in arts, music, media arts, etc., that’s going to be implemented next fall — a year from this fall — and if you don’t have a person with the arts expertise in place I think there’s going to be a lot of difficulty,” said Jonathan C. Rappaport, executive director of Arts Learning, which advocates for the arts to be seen as a core curriculum subject in Massachusetts schools. “I see this position as really coming at a critical point.”

“There’s going to be this new curriculum and new attention on the arts, but if there’s not the infrastructure then it’s going to die on the vine,” added Matt Wilson, executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide advocacy group for the arts and creative community.

Partially because of the new emphasis provided by ESSA, this summer, 70 arts educators have been working on new curricula in five areas (visual arts, media arts, performing arts, dance and music), and this year will begin the professional development and implementation.

“The timing now is so important to have the infrastructure,” said Wilson. “That there’s professional development and support for the teachers and it finds its place of importance in the department as a necessary piece.”

The appointment of Jeff Riley in January to replace Chester as the state education commissioner is reason for optimism, arts education advocates say. Rappaport said Riley met with the Arts For All coalition, a group of organizations that work on arts education policy. “The commissioner was very gracious and met with us, and he expressed very strong support for the arts,” Rappaport said. “I’m hopeful that if we work with him that this position will be reinstated.”

Wilson added, “This is an opportunity for the commissioner to follow through on the commitment to make arts an important part of the curriculum.”


Clea Simon is a Somerville-based novelist and longtime arts writer. She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.

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