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As some districts zero in on test scores, Boston celebrates revitalized arts education

Dancers from the Mildred Avenue K-8 School performed at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common on Wednesday.
Dancers from the Mildred Avenue K-8 School performed at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common on Wednesday.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

More than a decade ago, Boston Public Schools was grappling with a series of budget cuts that hit schools hard — especially with regards to art.

Local philanthropists clamoring for art to play a larger role in education saw their chance when Carol Johnson became BPS superintendent in 2007. Marinell Rousmaniere, CEO of the Boston education nonprofit EdVestors, recalled that Johnson talked at her first public event about the importance of children receiving an arts education.

Art boosters pitched a citywide initiative, and Johnson, who retired in 2013, readily agreed.

Now, the Arts Expansion Initiative is celebrating its 10th year. At a time when other parts of the country are dealing with the consequences of slashing arts funding to emphasize math and language arts skills that appear on standardized tests, the initiative has helped Boston commit to ensuring its public school students receive a comprehensive arts education.

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“We have definitely been bucking the trend,” said Rousmaniere, whose organization has managed nearly $15 million in arts funding over 10 years, doling out grants to help Boston schools that are committed to expanding their programs. The money funds community partners who provide students instruction in music, dance, and other media.

Those talents were on display last week on Boston Common, where more than 1,100 students from 21 schools showcased their skills at the seventh annual BPS Citywide Arts Festival.

On Wednesday, choirs sang Disney hits from “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid,” bands performed “Star Wars” songs and other classics on stage, and dancers in colorful costumes entertained the crowd with Latin dances like the cumbia.

Rousmaniere said the festival was held in such a public space so the community could see that funding for the arts has had an impact.

“The narrative is [that art] has been on the decline, there are tumbleweeds in the hallway,” she said. “The reality is actually quite different.”

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Sadie Soto, the dance teacher at Mildred Avenue, said she has noticed a marked increase in BPS’s attention and commitment to the arts since she started 14 years ago.

“At my school, for example, now we have two visual art teachers, we have music, and we have dance, so it’s something that we didn’t have in the past,” she said.

Olivia Hingston, one of Soto’s eighth-grade students, said performing on stage to the song “La Negra” was “nerve-racking,” but she loves attending Soto’s classes.

“We’re ourselves when we’re there, so we are not uncomfortable,” said Hingston, 14.

Rony Mejia, a seventh-grader at Edison K-8, plays xylophone in band, acts, and participates in spoken word, giving him a chance to voice his thoughts “about the bad things that are happening in our community, school, and the world.”

His theater teacher, Emily Culver, has seen improvement in the school’s art programs over her 16 years. “When I started there . . . I was given a classroom with some broken furniture and a crate of textbooks,” Culver said.

Now she has more classes and help from a professional scenic artist.

“We’ve got kids from a lot of walks of life [at Edison], a lot of special needs, 50 percent English-language learners, and to get them all into the arts and to see them thrive there, it’s kind of a place where I feel like people are unified,” Culver said.

According to data from EdVestors, 97 percent of those in pre-K through eighth grade at BPS received weekly arts instruction in 2019, a 30 percent increase from 2009. In high school, 66 percent of students received some sort of arts instruction in 2019, compared to 26 percent in 2009. And BPS’s arts budget has jumped from $15 million to more than $26 million each year thanks to the initiative’s efforts, Rousmaniere said.

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Boston’s renewed commitment to the arts in the late 2000s came as nationwide childhood arts education marked its lowest result in 26 years. Just under half of 18-year-olds who participated in the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 survey said they received any sort of arts education in childhood, down from 57 percent six years prior, and from 65 percent in 1982.

And from 2008 to 2016, the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s arts report card, a different metric, did not find significant differences in the number of students taking art classes.

NEA education director Ayanna Hudson said there isn’t enough national data to identify a definite trend in the state of arts education, but agreed that in school districts facing budget crises, art is often “first on the chopping block.”

Rousmaniere said the “testing and accountability movement” — spurred in part by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act — prioritized reading, writing, and mathematics as the country sought to boost test scores.

Now, Boston and other cities are leading the charge as districts nationwide think about “how we do a better job of reintegrating,” Rousmaniere said. “People see that there is a narrowing of the curriculum and now are really wrestling with how to shift that.”

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Kellen Browning can be reached at kellen.browning@globe.com, or on Twitter at @kellen_browning.