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Column: The unseen benefits of the arts in schools
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The crew of Heritage High School’s April 2013 production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” hard at work during dress rehearsals. - photo by Michelle Kim

Last April the Rockdale News covered Heritage High School's stage production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie." We would like to return to a photograph that accompanied that story and look at what it reveals about what a strong arts program can provide for a school community, although those qualities might not be evident at a glance.

Note our emphasis on the school community. When people think back on what made their education a special time of life, they recall a variety of memories: their best classes, their friendships, their participation in school events and other experiences in which they felt something exceptional, something vivid, something unforgettable. These occasions often involved them in the company of others, working on a shared goal that involved high levels of coordination and cooperation. It involved, in other words, an important kind of school spirit that helped them build a feeling of affiliation with their classmates, school, and community.

When people talk about cutting budgets down to the essentials, the importance of this sort of school spirit typically goes unnoticed. Rather, the "hard," technical skills that prepare young people for jobs tend to become foregrounded. However, technical skills are only part of workplace competency. The "soft," relational skills and the resulting emotional connections they engender have a great deal to do with school persistence, school success and ultimately to workplace harmony and achievement.

Let's take a close look at the photograph. The conductor directs a group of musicians who must coordinate their accompaniment with the unseen action onstage. The stage itself includes sets designed and built by students in the weeks prior to the public performance. Backstage, off camera, others assist with costume changes and other shifts in action. Lighting is continually changed, curtains are drawn and opened, all with precision and coordination. Participating in the planning, construction, preparation, and execution of the performance requires a lot of cooperation and synchronization of the sort that may easily carry over to other group efforts.

Now let's zoom in a little closer to notice what the photo reveals about the depth of the theatre experience, looking more carefully at details that perhaps only a knowledgeable eye could interpret.

The woman at the keyboard is a teacher who found joy and renewal by musically accompanying the play. There are college performers in the pit who mentor the high school musicians.

There is a young man in a wheelchair to the left whose needs and interests are served by his inclusion among the musicians; there's not enough space anywhere to contain the impact educational theatre has made on his high school experience. The people on the front row are parents who volunteer to be a presence during rehearsals. These parents care for all the students, not just their own children.

In the very back of the theatre stands a custodian, Mr. George Sirbu, who offers kind words and hard work to help maintain a pleasing environment in which the troupe rehearses and performs. The students are affected by his work ethic and generous spirit.

This one chance snapshot, then, provides a glimpse of the community that evolves from the theatrical experience. This feeling of belonging is especially significant in high school when the trajectory of students' lives is being set. Note that in this picture, neither the director nor the actors are visible. What you see is the coordinated, dedicated, focused effort of the offstage contributors. Theatre is so much more than what happens on stage during the ultimate performance; what happens offstage represents a great deal of the value of school theater programs.

In school, as much as anything, youth are learning how to live as social beings. Some school critics might consider such learning to be "soft" and therefore of lesser value. We would argue the opposite: that these relational skills that contribute to strong communities are among the most essential abilities that a student can learn in school, the qualities that enable resilience, motivation, and other qualities required for successful performance. Drama programs are among those social activities through which young people can learn how to work cohesively as a team; music, sports, arts, and other co-curricular activities potentially produce the same results.

When the emphasis is solely on test scores based on multiple choice questions, all that is rich and vital in learning gets reduced to a caricature of learning. When teachers' efforts to make school a place with a heart and soul are ignored at the expense of such relatively trivial assessments, school becomes a cold and heartless place.

Can we afford to fund arts programs in schools? Can we afford not to?


Michelle Thorne is a fine arts teacher and theater director at Heritage High School and can be reached at

Peter Smagorinsky is a Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia and can be reached at