A mentor of mine once said, “A good journalist is one who mirrors their readers.” This is a mantra that I enact in my everyday life through keeping up to date with various sources of information. My mornings often starts with NPR’s morning show and is peppered with news notifications from a variety of sources on both sides of the aisle. This nose for news intertwines with my desire to spread information about the world around me.
Passion into action
As a student-musician since fourth grade, I often heard remarks regarding the low amount of students in attendance at concerts, especially in comparison to the amount of students attending sporting events. Many student-musicians were disgruntled, believing that the arts received far less support than athletics. Intrigued by this commentary, I decided to research the truth of these claims.
I composed a short survey that was answered by 324 students. Our staff requirement is that a minimum of 310 students must be surveyed in order for results to be reliable, as it results in a five percent or less margin of error.
The data showed that the students’ theories were correct; the 2017-18 student body attended more sporting events than musical concerts.
With this data in mind, I compiled interviews from students, teachers, and administrators into an article regarding the support for arts at West High.
The most difficult part of the story, however, was removing my own opinions. Given that I have been a musician for years, I was inclined to agree with what the music students were saying. However, according to my superintendent, budgets for the music department were approximately the same as for sports, so I make sure to include this in the article.
This story was published on May 24, 2017 as the cover story for the May print issue of the West Side Story.
“State of the arts” by Anjali Huynh
As schools across the nation are losing funding, music and art programs are facing major cuts. Without student support, could West risk suffering these same kinds of losses?
From Summer of the Arts festivals to being dubbed a UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa City culture has been characterized for excelling in the arts. But as schools across the nation are being forced to drop these courses as a result of educational budget losses, the question is raised of whether the arts within the ICCSD could be at risk of removal as well.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposed to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and cut the educational budget by 13.5 percent. However, fine arts programs have experienced decreasing support since long before Trump’s presidency. A national study done in 2015 by Grantmakers in the Arts showed that total public funding for the arts has decreased by 15 percent over the past two decades, which has made a direct impact on the local level as well.
In 2014, the Iowa government reduced funding for education budgets in all school districts across the state. According to ICCSD Superintendent Steve Murley, the district was forced to reduce funding for or cut programs in order to make up for a $3.6 million budget shortage. As a result, the music budget lost around half a million dollars, resulting in the loss of fourth grade orchestra and job positions for music teachers.
Defunding of the band and orchestra programs is expected to negatively impact students at the secondary level of music study.
“Cutting the number of elementary teachers that we have for band and orchestra I think is having long-lasting impact and makes it really hard to get kids a good start,” said band director Rob Medd. “That was something that unfortunately a lot of people have lost sight of. They’ve forgotten that those cuts even happened.”
While the removal of the fourth grade strings program is a fairly recent event, the district has not yet seen the effects of this decision in high school. The reduction of this program is expected to have a lasting impact on strings programs across the district.
“What’s going to happen is we’re going have some students that have not had the same advantages as others of attending the Preucil School … or having outside instruction when they were young,” said orchestra director Jonathan Welch. “Some students only get instruction here at school, and I’m their only teacher. That is going to put them at a slight disadvantage to other students. It’s safe to say that it’s going to impact certain students that don’t have the same financial status as other students [more heavily], and that’s a hard thing to see as a teacher.”
For Iowa City schools, there is another problem besides defunding fine arts programs—namely, the lack of student support for music and art. Choir member Lucy Polyak ’19 believes that West’s music programs are not necessarily looked down upon by the student body, but are not advocated by students.
“I think overwhelmingly, students who aren’t involved in the music department don’t really go out of their way to support it,” Polyak said. “I know the majority of people who enjoy choir and come to choir concerts and stuff are either people who have been in choir or the family members of choir people, and I believe the same is true for band and orchestra.”
Some believe that this is because students aren’t interested in learning about music, and choose to focus on other areas of interest, like athletics, instead.
“To really appreciate choir music and band music, you have to have some sort of understanding of what you’re listening to,” Polyak said. “A lot of people don’t really want to make the effort to learn about [music], like how you would learn [the rules of football], people don’t really want to learn the rules about what qualifies as a good song for choir or band or orchestra.”
A survey done with West students shows that while the numbers of students involved in the arts and in athletics are relatively similar, over 25 percent more students have been to a sporting event than a music concert.
And it’s not just music programs that are suffering from lack of student support; art programs have also seen lower numbers of enrolled students. Surveyed West students showed that over half of the school population has never taken an art class, which impacted the number of classes able to be offered.
“Like other areas, we have had to drop art classes due to low numbers of students registered or because of budgetary issues,” said art teacher Jenny Saylor. “Every year we make decisions about which classes will run and which will not based on the number of students registered and the amount of staffing we have available … I wish that for other students it wasn’t so easy to choose open hours instead of taking advantage of the many opportunities they have in so many curricular areas in our high schools.”
The stigma against pursuing the arts as a career has also played a role in students not pursuing art past high school. However, a survey done by the NEA revealed that the unemployment rate for the arts was 7.1 percent in 2013, in comparison to 6.6 percent for all U.S. employees. This marginally higher rate demonstrates that careers in the arts are possible.
“There’s that whole thing about [how] you can’t support yourself as an artist … because [people] don’t think you’re going to have a future,” said student artist Emily Buck ’19. “That’s false. You can support yourself, and even if it is harder for artists, I think that if art gets more support and [if] the arts become a priority in people’s lives, overall that might change.”
Some student musicians and artists also feel they are not receiving enough support from administrators and the district. This is partially because some students, like drum major Lauren Ernst ’18, once again feel that there is greater hype surrounding athletics in the community.
“In terms of priorities, I would say music is a lower priority and less important to the district rather than things like athletics,” Ernst said. “Not enough people appreciate music. [Music programs are] not moneymakers. [People] like the physical aspect [and team spirit] of [things like] football … but you can’t exactly show up to a band concert in all camo and cheer loudly and be obnoxious like a lot of people like doing.”
Buck believes that the districts may see the arts as an easy area to reduce money from, saying, “I think [administrators] generally tend to [cut from] arts because it’s harder to see the direct benefit … it also gets less support in the community, just on the wheel of, ‘The arts don’t have this much support so I guess we’ll cut it,’ but then, once you cut it, of course it won’t generate as much support, so it’s just that cycle of lack of support, lack of funding until the arts are nonexistent.”
However, contrary to popular belief, funding for athletics is not necessarily greater than for the arts; in fact, it’s actually the other way around.
“When you look at funding for sports, you’re looking at funding for extracurricular activities, and when you’re looking at the arts, many of those are co-curricular activities,” Murley explained. “We have quite a bit of money invested in salaries for staff that support those, so if you think orchestra, band, choir, visual arts … you would find that we spend much more money on the arts than we do on sports.”
In fact, fine arts teachers do believe that the district has been fairly supportive of these programs as well, considering the ICCSD arts programs have experienced much less harm than other districts around the nation.
“A lot of people look at the fine arts as some sort of secondary program or an add on to [curricular courses],” Medd said. “They look at the fine arts as not fitting within that, but complementing that. I think our community especially is very supportive, [and] I think we have supportive people throughout the district.”
Looking to the future of the arts in the Iowa City community, students and teachers alike believe that students can help support their peers through getting involved with the music and art programs.
“I definitely think that if you’re not in the music program … going to concerts is super important,” Polyak said. “It’s a lot more fun to perform for a big audience than an audience that you know is just everybody’s mom out there.”
Buck seconded this for art programs, saying, “Taking art classes [or] just opening yourself up to taking art classes would help. If more people are enrolled in art classes, then it will give [administrators] less incentive to cut them.”
The ICCSD also hopes to make the arts programs more of a priority despite the low educational budget, as the district believes them to be integral to student education.
“If you really want to be a well-rounded person, you need to have a wide variety of experiences, and I think the arts are a must in that list of experiences that you need to have,” Murley said. “With the low budget that the state’s given us the last few years, we’ve looked for other places to cut our budget to try to make ends meet. When you look at what our orchestras [and] our choirs have been able to do when they compete at the state level and beyond [and] the recognition that our kids get in our programs … the quality of the programs keeps an emphasis on the arts visible to the rest of the community.”
Defending my craft
It is no secret that the news media industry is consistently under attack. From “fake news” claims to overt death threats, journalists have become a target in recent times. As a student who wishes to pursue this “dangerous” career, I was alarmed with the hatred being perpetuated. The role of journalists is to promote truth and spread information that educates the public. Thus, I composed an opinion column explaining the purpose of the news media and why spreading truth should be no person’s foe.
Find the full story in the “Writing – Opinion” section.
Educating the state
This past fall, I had the chance to give a presentation at the Iowa High School Press Association fall convention. Here, I discussed my findings from the Al Neuharth Free Spirit & Journalism and shared this opportunity with other journalists from across the state. Sharing tips garnered from professionals betters the skills of any journalist and certainly improves literacy.