Fine arts students thrive despite dwindling interest

Music will always be a hobby says sophomore Chas Bogatz. Photo courtesy Chas Bogatz.

Story  by Erin Grant, NewsNetNebraska

Chas Bogatz is a walking – sometimes marching – case study in why the fine arts should be a part of a high school’s academic curriculum. A drum major in the marching band, he plays trombone in the concert band, sings tenor in both concert and show choir and has recently taken on a role in the spring musical.

But for Bogatz music and the arts will remain only a hobby. When he goes to college, the Millard West High School sophomore says, he’ll pursue a career in business.

“I want to keep music recreational because once a hobby is also a career it becomes the boldest aspect of your life,” says Bogatz, who has opted out of a fine-arts diploma program at the school. “I want to have multiple dimensions and aspects to my life, and music should be one that is stress-free and not forced.”

That is anything but music to the ears of arts teachers at Millard West. Millard Public Schools, which pioneered the fine arts diploma program in 2007 to meet rising demand for career-focused learning, is now finding interest is low. The number of students in the higher-level classes in the arts is shrinking.

“It’s tough trying to keep numbers up,” says Joanie Sanders, an art teacher at Millard West. Actual numbers are not available.

Competition for the same top students is fierce. The fine arts concentration is competing with new programs that allow students to focus on finance, marketing, history, English, math and other core academic areas. Such programs — known as academies — let students take their required subjects at their home high schools and then spend part of every day focusing on the specialty areas in other schools.

“This type of learning encourages kids to explore their interests using their course work,” says Linda Brewer, a guidance counselor at Millard West.

Part of the problem with the slide in interest in the arts is also internal. Because of scheduling issues, some music students feel they don’t have time to take drama, painting and other fine arts subjects, for instance. Kristin Hoffman, an art teacher at Millard West, says this is cutting the enrollments even as some students excel in multiple arts classes.

“Many of the students we want are the same ones the music and drama departments want as well,” says Hoffman, who specializes in painting. “The same kids are the ones talented in many areas of the fine arts. But some arts programs require multiple semesters while others don’t, which forces kids to choose between art, music, or drama.”

Painting is one of the many courses offered in the art department at Millard West High School. Photo: Erin Grant, NewsNetNebraska

While some students have opted out of the fine arts diploma program, others are seeing the benefits it offers. Kyle Theobald, a senior following the fine arts diploma path, says that he has found new ways to express himself thanks to the many choices he has.

“Before I was in the diploma path I thought I knew what areas of art I excelled in and what I didn’t,” says Theobald. “But once I was required to take art classes I didn’t feel I excelled in, like painting, I found a new appreciation for the media and it broadened my skills artistically.”

The fine arts have been linked to success in academics overall as well as elsewhere. Over the years, research has shown that students who are involved in fine arts programs succeed inside the classroom and out. Students pick up such life skills as time management, leadership, and organization.

“Fine arts kids see the big picture,” says art-teacher Sanders. “They know what their ultimate goal is and they learn to problem-solve in order to achieve it. Most of the time kids who are successful in the arts are successful in other places as well.”

The academic research also shows that students involved in the arts generally have higher college entrance test scores, GPAs, and success rates academically and often in careers. Doug Bogatz, Chas’s older brother and Assistant Band Director at Washburn Rural High School in Topeka (Kans.), says that while the fine arts pay off in school, they have a much greater impact.

Student alters music notes in Music Theory class. Photo: Erin Grant, NewsNetNebraska

“The fine arts plug you into a social network in high school, which is very important for students at this age,” says the elder Bogatz. “You don’t have to be a certain size, age, whatever to participate in the fine arts. It accepts you for who you are.”

Some students who haven’t tried their hand at such skills as drawing or acting may also find them a bit scary, academics say. This, too, could be trimming enrollments.

“I think many students are intimidated by the arts,” says Sanders. “They think that in order for them to take an art class they should already be good at art. That’s when I tell them to take a class because it is a chance for them to learn those skills.”

The elder Bogatz, a Millard West music program alumnus who later served as a drum major for the UNL Marching Band, blames fears over job security. The arts help students in myriad ways but it’s tough to draw a paycheck in them, he suggests.

“Unfortunately it comes down to money,” he says. “The fine arts don’t always guarantee a steady income. You have to have a large passion for whatever art form you’re entering to make a career out of it. It can really suck at times, unless you’re pretty lucky.”

For the teachers at Millard and similar schools who champion the fine arts, these are tough lessons to swallow. They can take solace in the idea that so many of their alums will thrive, whether in the arts or other things.

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