Advocates Launch Weakley Arts Can

If a growing group of arts advocates succeed, Weakley Arts Can will be more than just a slogan; it will be the reality that translates into academic and economic gains throughout the county.

What began as research in response to parents in the Martin area voicing concerns about the lack of music and art opportunities in the city schools, has now evolved into a fledgling organization, a social media campaign, and a scheduled presentation before the Weakley County School Board on Thursday to make formal requests.

Angela Ammerman, coordinator of music education and assistant professor of music education at UT Martin, told supporters of the arts and athletics who gathered for a reception last week, the initiative began as a response to parents who contacted her and other UTM colleagues. A survey conducted last year in Martin by the Charger Foundation and another survey that went countywide reinforced the perceived need for more arts education.

Among the findings of the research thus far is the fact that currently, Weakley County students split music and art during the 36 weeks of school with each receiving 18 weeks of emphasis, which equals only 13 hours of each per year. Less than 50 percent of high schools in Weakley County have band, choir, or orchestra. And the survey results suggest that 83 percent of Weakley County parents are calling for an increase in an arts presence.

“The arts are tremendously beneficial to our students, to ourselves and to our community. We also recognize that our community leaders are demanding art students that are educated in the arts for employment,” Ammerman told the reception attendees.

“They want to hire people who can think creatively. They want to hire people who can think outside of the box and that can really grow their business. And they are demanding that, not just here in Weakley County but throughout the entire country.”

Ammerman who also serves as UTM’s orchestra director, is a native of Cincinnati, and has been in Martin two years. Previously, she taught in Fairfax, Virginia, where she devoted time to recruiting students from impoverished areas and those studying English as a Second Language to be part of a music program.

“Once you can see benefits in a community, you can’t help yourself,” she said of her passion for the proposed increase in arts education.

Information gathered to make the case for increased attention for the arts includes statistics from the Americans for the Arts report:

  • Those studying music and arts are five times more likely to graduate from high school.
  • Arts students are more likely to attend class more often than students who are not in arts classes.
  • Art students perform 91 points higher on the SAT than those not in the arts.
  • Art students are three times more likely to achieve awards for attendance, leadership positions and writing awards.
  • And they are 44 percent less likely to use drugs.

Katie Mantooth, the assistant director of Career Planning and Development at UTM, was one of the parents who initially approached Ammerman and her colleagues and has assisted in the development of the advocacy campaign. With children in the 10th, 8th and 5th grades, she has witnessed the limited options currently available at all levels of the school system. Her family’s experience includes a choir that had limited spots because the choir director didn’t have the manpower to handle all of the students who were interested and a failed attempt at another choir because of the dependence on unpaid college students who, along with some of the choir members, were not consistent in attendance.

“I’m really excited to be partnering to try to advocate for arts in our county,” Mantooth said.

Julie Hill, the chair of UTM’s Department of Music and the Faculty Evaluation Coordinator, equated the effort to a “booster club for the arts” and told the reception that the hope is to produce a model for rural school districts.

Hill, a Martin native, traces her career as a professional percussionist to her days at Martin Elementary and the encouragement of Sandra Robbins, her general music teacher who died last year. Speaking at Robbins’ funeral, Hill relayed the story of how Robbins assigned her the tambourine and then remarked on “her uncanny knack for rhythm.”

“I never felt special. I wasn’t popular,” Hill said of her class time prior to that musical acknowledgement. “That was a defining moment and she created that. It was such a difference-maker for me.”

The Weakley Arts Can organizers are looking to create similar impact in the lives of students across the county. They voiced appreciation for the support that the school board has already given them and look forward to Thursday’s presentation. There they will note benefits of arts programs such as improved attendance and test scores and increases in graduation rates, student’s sense of belonging and identity, and critical thinking skills. College readiness and higher college acceptance rates have also resulted when the arts are accessible.

Among the issues they hope to address are provision of year-long elementary music and art beginning in 2019-20. Scheduling issues with sports and academic subjects will have to be overcome for this expansion to occur. In the following year, they would like to see a county band, orchestra, choir and drama option housed at a central location and available to middle-school and high-school students.

To accomplish this centralized effort, transportation must be provided so the group is looking into bussing options. The need is for at least two additional busses because they have access to two and a total of four are needed. The programs would be timed for before or after school.

To create awareness and mobilize support for the requests, a social media campaign was launched in January.

“The school board has been very supportive. We just need parents advocating,” Ammerman said. “We are not asking for money at the moment. We want people to be vocal about what their children’s needs are.”

To learn more, see @TheArtsCan1 on Twitter, @westtnarts on Facebook.

The Emerging Youth Benefit Concert, a fundraiser for the UTM Community Music Academy (CMA) and Weakley Arts Can, is scheduled for Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the Blankenship Recital Hall, UTM Fine Arts Building. UTM CMA provides affordable music lessons for young people in western Tennessee and Kentucky.

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