Everyone who has attended public school in Alexandria has taken some form of arts class, whether it was finger-painting or choir, creative writing or photography. In fact, one arts credit is required to graduate from high school. With much of the academic focus on science- and math-oriented courses, and extracurricular focus on athletics, are the arts being underappreciated?
T.C. Williams Orchestra teacher Suzanna Sitomer feels like she is “grasping at straws” when it comes to funding her orchestra program. “I can buy music for the concert season, but nothing extra,” said Sitomer of her sheet music budget. She says she can usually get enough strings and rosin to last the year, but the same cannot be said for instruments. “I think our funding decreases every year,” said Sitomer, “There are other departments that have better resources.” There are 142 people participating in the orchestra program, but according to Sitomer, the budget has not grown despite the program’s growth.
In 2009, ACPS division-wide athletics had a budget of $1,146,830. This year, the drama department has a budget of $10,000, and this covers rights, scripts, set materials, costumes, and the special hiring of choreographers or dialect coaches. Hope Bachman, one of two drama teachers at T.C, said, “The drama classes can request supplies through a department budget [but] the extra-curricular productions are self-supporting.” The fall play costs between $2,000-$3,000, and the musical costs between $7,000-$8,000. Bachman said, “We would like to increase our balance to $15,000 or $20,000. This would allow us more flexibility and authenticity in costuming, as well as the ability to purchase additional lighting or sound equipment.”
Robert McDonough, the only drama teacher and department director at George Washington Middle School said, “We are given around a budget of $1000 for the [annual drama] production,” The school designates this money to the G.W. drama department and any other expenses must be covered by fundraising. The average cast of each production is 30 kids, but this depends on the production, said McDonough. When including the number of kids working on technical support and set construction over the course of the show, it amounts to 60-100 total.
The arts have an impact on students, and “all arts build creativity and imagination,” said Bachman. Acting builds skills in reading comprehension, interpretation, and memorization. Technical theatre, as in the building of sets and lighting and sound management, requires the practical application of math and problem-solving skills, she said. The arts also create connections between disciplines.
Sitomer said the arts are “what keeps them [the students] coming to school.” In response, sophomore Lily Carlisle-Reske said, “Yep, that’s my life.” Samantha Williams, a sophomore and choir member, said, “Singing helps me to express myself and is something I’m very good at. Music is my life, and without the arts I wouldn’t be who I am today. The self-control and focus I gain from singing helps me as a person and as a student tremendously.” McDonough said, “It’s a way for young people to exercise their own ability to analyze, to judge, to give value to things that can be abstract.”
There seems to be a difference in compensation between the directors of arts and those of other extracurriculars. “There’s a huge discrepancy between the paying of coaches and the paying of music staff in the afternoons,” said Sitomer of their afterschool compensations. “The marching band [directors] do the same thing as the football coaches, [but] they get paid much less. Marching band directors don’t get paid for band camp; they do it out of the goodness of their hearts.” Williams brought up the issue of arts funding by saying, “For the upcoming trip to Orlando, each participating choir member must be able to raise six hundred dollars. This significantly reduced the number of choir members able to go and some of our best singers can’t pay, so they won’t be there to compete.”
Those involved with the arts have hope for the future of their programs. “I believe that the choir program is going to grow immensely in the next five years,” said Williams. “With Mr. Thorpe as the new choir director, I think the T.C. choir will become one of the best in the area. Next year there will be a show choir, concert choir, mixed choir, and after school choir.”
As for the T.C. drama department, Bachman said she would like to see more people who participate in extracurricular productions sign up for drama classes. She said, “We often find very talented students who could really strengthen their core acting skills—projection, enunciation, memorization—and their more advanced skills—interpretation, characterization, improvisation—by participation in class.” This, she said, would allow rehearsals to run more efficiently and generate better overall productions.
McDonough said, “When civilizations come and go, the only thing that they have left that really gives value and allows us in the present to appreciate things in the past is artistic achievements.”