Arts for All

  • Hannah Cordes of Portland Stage uses the "Silent Unicorn" to get the attention of fifth graders at Lyseth Elementary School.

  • At the Portland Museum of Art, middle and high school students interact with works of art through their own experiences.

  • Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana participates in a workshop hosted by Portland Stage Company at Lyseth School.

Culture Club engages students in Portland Public Schools

Standing in the center of a noisy fifth-grade classroom at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland, Hannah Cordes gets the students’ attention by placing her thumb on her forehead and wiggling her fingers while she says, “Wapoosh!” The children repeat the goofy gesture—the “Silent Unicorn”—and settle into a seated circle focused on Cordes, education manager for Portland Stage Company, for today’s workshop. “What do you remember about the play?” she asks brightly, referring to Charles Dickens’ Holiday Classic, which the class recently saw at Portland Stage. “I liked the flying bed,” offers one girl. “No offense to Bob Cratchit, but he was acting like a doormat,” says a boy. This workshop, the performance, and the pre-show workshop are all made possible by Culture Club-Portland, a program that provides educational experiences at four major Portland arts organizations to all K-12 students in Portland Public Schools every year. There is no cost to parents, nor is the initiative part of the school budget. And it appears to be the only program of its kind nationwide.

Five years ago, an anonymous donor approached the arts organizations with an offer and a challenge. The donor would give $200,000 a year to ensure that every student in the city’s 16 public schools would be involved in meaningful arts programming. Portland Stage, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), Portland Ovations ,and the Portland Symphony Orchestra (PSO) collaborated on a plan, and Culture Club was launched.

“We haven’t found one other community in the country that has this same model for public schools and arts institution engagement,” says Kate Snyder, executive director of the Portland Education Foundation, which administers the funds. “The idea is that by the time a student graduates from high school, the arts education that they get builds on itself and augments what’s happening in the classroom. It’s not just a field trip and it’s not just a pop-in—these kids are engaged. It’s about understanding the theater, but it’s also tying what they saw into what they’re doing with literacy, math, social studies, or science.”

Each of the four arts organizations has created special programming tailored to the wide range of age groups served by Culture Club. Programs for the youngest students are focused on literacy; for example, Portland Ovations presented a performance for pre-K through second-graders based on the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Additional fundraising made it possible for each child in the audience to receive a copy of the book. “Because of the repetition in that story, it was really enforcing all the great early literacy strategies,” says Catherine Anderson, director of Ovations Offstage—the organization’s educational and community outreach arm. “Children had the experience of seeing the performance, coming back to the book, and saying, ‘I can read.’ That was an ‘aha’ moment.”

At its youth concerts for fourth- through sixth- graders at Merrill Auditorium, PSO musicians wear colored T-shirts to identify themselves by section—woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion—helping students understand the makeup of the orchestra. Last fall, assistant conductor Andrew Crust led a concert titled What Is American Music? “It was really about how American music has come to be, and that there were so many different influences from different populations worldwide coming into the United States and creating a sound,” says PSO executive director Carolyn Nishon. “The message was at the end of it: all of your unique voices come together to make an American voice.”

For this year’s eighth-graders, the PSO presented America: The Musical Melting Pot, created by John Elliott, the PSO’s director of education and community engagement, and two history teachers at Lincoln Middle School. “I said, ‘What are you guys working on?
What can we do?’ And they said, ‘We’re doing American history from pre-colonial times up
to about the year 1900,’” Elliott explains. “We developed a program that takes the periods of history that they’re learning and looks at music that was significant for that period—all the way from Beethoven to ‘Yankee Doodle.’”

The PMA engages middle- and high- school students by tapping into their interest in social justice issues, says Jennifer DePrizio, the museum’s director of learning and interpretation. “We use a method called visual thinking strategy—an open-ended way of looking at a work of art,” she says. “Starting with, ‘What are students wondering about,’ and letting that lead the conversation.” A recent program centered on The Drop Sinister—What Shall We Do With It? The 1913 painting by Harry Willson Watrous depicts an interracial couple and a blond-haired child. “It’s not immediately obvious what’s going on, but the title and the image suggest societal tensions,” says DePrizio. “They want to talk about that because they’re trying to figure out, ‘What is my place in the world?’ By looking closely at works of art and deciphering them through their life experience, students can learn the skills that will help them to be critical thinkers.”

The success of Culture Club extends beyond engaging Portland students in the arts to inspiring the adults who work with them. “It’s great to see them doing something where they can feel successful outside of their day-to-day  academics,” says Lyseth teacher Carrie Mooney, as she watches her fifth-graders follow Cordes’s direction to skip across the room like the reawakened Ebenezer Scrooge.

“For me as an executive director to be able to work so closely with the other executive directors of some of the key organizations in Portland has been not only a complete joy, but I think it’s actually made our partnership and the role that we see ourselves playing in this community much stronger,” says Nishon, a sentiment echoed by her counterparts in the other three organizations. Anderson, who was a middle-school teacher before being hired by Portland Ovations, says Culture Club programming “takes away the guesswork” for educators. “Not only from a funding position, but also because they know that if they tap into Culture Club, they are going to have a completely quality education experience that will tie back to their learning objectives,” she says. “They don’t have to try to make it fit. They know that whatever program they choose, from any of the four arts organizations, it will fit.”

For the first three years of Culture Club’s existence, the focus was on developing programs. In the last two years, the emphasis has been on weaving programming seamlessly into the curriculum at Portland schools. Now, with a foundation firmly in place, the donor is scaling back, providing $150,000 for 2017-18 and $100,000 the following year. “It’s really upon us to figure out what is the revenue that’s needed to support this on both sides—the school side and the arts side,” says Snyder. “And how are we going to bring in this revenue? Is it through individual donors, foundation money, or can we build an endowment to help support this work?”

All involved in Culture Club are confident that the necessary funds will be found. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it continues to grow as people learn more about the collaboration,” says Anita Stewart, executive director of Portland Stage, whose children attend Portland public schools. “This community supports amazing arts institutions in a relatively small metropolitan area, and as a result, we can offer our students something exceptional.”


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