Written by Mike Cook
Local educators and students share why the arts are crucial
to a well-rounded learning experience.
“I totally believe the “A” should be added to STEM,”
Las Cruces Public Schools (LCPS) Support Services Coordinator Cari Aguilera says. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—the core academic disciplines of public education. The “A” is arts, which many educators—and students—think should be added to the mix to create STEAM to better define the fundamental elements of a well-rounded education.
“The arts promote creativity and collaboration for all kinds of learners,” Cari notes. “The arts help students develop design and creative thinking from a very young age, which are critical to their success in other coursework. The arts also help with thinking outside the box and coming up with different ideas for solving different problems.”
Long-time LCPS elementary art teacher Maggie Horning calls art education a visceral approach to learning.
“You learn to see, to look, to observe, and in doing so, you weave a connection to your own life knowledge that is embedded in how you understand and approach problem solving,” she explains. “When your hands and your body learn something, it becomes part of your knowledge base and how you learn for life.”
Las Cruces High School (LCHS) student Grace Marks plays the guitar and sings, performing regularly at several local venues. Her interest in the arts comes naturally: her grandfather, Mark Medoff, is a Tony-winning playwright. Her father, Ross Marks, is an award-winning director and assistant professor in New Mexico State University’s Creative Media Institute. Her mother, Debra Marks, is executive director of the Las Cruces Symphony.
“I think arts are so important in a student’s life because it really gives them a chance to branch out and show their strengths in ways other than English and math,” Grace says.
If LCPS arts has a “founder,” it’s probably the school district’s first ever arts coordinator, John Schutz. Before John became part-time arts coordinator in the early 1990s, fifth- and sixth-graders were the only elementary-level students who had regular art classes. By the time he retired, there were full-time music teachers at every elementary school for all grade levels. Visual arts teachers were also added, and John guided a 15-year renovation of all middle and high school arts facilities.
In 2004, Las Cruces’ first dedicated arts school, Alma d’arte Charter High School opened its doors to students.
“The importance given to the arts in my public school education completely shaped my future,” says Alma graduate Shannon Ellison. “I had bad grades in middle school because the only thing I cared about was dancing and reading, but I became a straight-A student at Alma, where the arts were incorporated into almost every class. This taught me passion in learning at the most basic level. I learned not only that the curiosity I felt for the arts could be incorporated into more ‘boring’ subjects, but that the leaders of mainstream professions in business or science often considered themselves ‘artists.’ This created a great blur between what was ‘fun’ and ‘not fun,’ and teachers were clever about broadening my love of reading fiction into reading historical non-fiction, or presenting math as a kind of cosmic dance. The self-exploration and discipline required to create art gave me both awareness of what I wanted and what I could handle, and the confidence to pursue it. I am now a brand strategist, novelist, and entrepreneur with my own creative agency in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.”
“The arts encourage empathy, creativity, and demand the highest order of thinking skills in a way that is fun,” notes Megan McQueen, who was one of Shannon’s teachers at Alma and is now an assistant professor in the NMSU Theatre Arts Department and co-founder of her own theatre company, Scaffolding.
Megan’s favorite quote about the arts comes from President John Adams, who said, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
“Analyzing, synthesizing and creating within the arts not only teaches us, but it also feels like play,” Megan explains. “Play is essential to learning, and the more we take the fun out of school, the less joy students associate with learning. I have had students reach out to me years after high school to say that theatre class literally saved their lives. Students need accepting, artistic environments to learn more about themselves and each other.”
2009 Alma graduate Eric Tarin says performing arts served as more than just an outlet for him.
“They allowed me to shape and mold my voice into one less reserved,” he says. “I had always been shy growing up and rarely vocalized opinions. Being placed in front of a stage and allowing an audience to witness my bodies of work suddenly made social and professional interactions less daunting.”
Currently a corpsman in the U.S. Navy working in patient care, Eric credits the empathy he learned as a performer with helping him to provide better care to his patients.
“It makes caring for them more personal and engaging,” he says.
While budget cuts have impacted all New Mexico schools over the last decade or so, LCPS is maintaining its commitment to arts education, Board of Education member Maria Flores confirms, saying, “There has never been any movement to cut any of our programs and the board is committed to keeping the arts alive in all schools. Our schools already have the ‘A’ (STEAM) in their programs, and it is available to all our students. It has been there for me as a parent, a teacher, and as a board member, and I am proud of that.”
As a history teacher, Maria worked with a music teacher to incorporate songs into her lessons. Her own children played in orchestra, and sang and played in the mariachi program at LCHS. Her son was also in the famed LCHS choir taught for many years by Diane Schutz, who is married to John.
“They loved belonging to their groups. It was an integral part of their education and made it fun, with travel and competitions,” she remembers.
For those worried that their children won’t have the same opportunities, Cari confirms that LCPS continues to be very supportive of the arts and funding for the arts. Schools are also reaching out to the community through arts in collaboration with NMSU, the Doña Ana Arts Council, and most recently with MountainView Regional Medical Center, where high school students contributed to an art display installed in August in the hospital’s new oncology department. Cari invites anyone interested to visit Las Cruces schools to see arts programs in action.