Merrifield bill would promote the arts in schools

By Cindy Brovsky

Jeff Hodur was a wayward student at Coronado High School in Colorado Springs until he found his life’s passion.

“I was a punk kid who didn’t always go to class,” he recalled. “I was 16 and my future undecided. I was in and out of the courts until music helped me develop an outlet.”

A newfound love for choir and mastering several instruments refocused Hodur. After high school graduation, he earned a teaching degree from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Eventually, Hodur came back to Coronado High School in a different role. His former music teacher recruited Hodur as his replacement.

That retired teacher, Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou, said Hodur is just one of thousands of students he saw over his 30-year career positively impacted by art and music classes. He’s introduced a bill that for the first time would make performing arts and visual arts mandatory in all Colorado public schools.

If the bill is approved, proficiency in those classes will be a condition of high school graduation beginning with the ninth grade class of 2010-2011. The bill also wants to incorporate arts education into dropout prevention and career and technical programs.

Colorado public schools currently offer art classes as electives compared to about 46 states where art education is part of high school requirements.

“This bill is tremendously important for kids, especially when looking at all of the cuts in the last few years of arts programs,” Merrifield said. “Administrators have been forced to concentrate on CSAP standardize tests and drill the kids for higher test scores and there’s no time left for arts programs.”

Testing proficiency in the performing arts and visual arts as part of high school graduation requirements will put a renewed emphasis on the classes, he said. The assessments will be measured the same as new standards recently approved by the legislature for other classes, including science, math, reading and writing.

The bill is co-sponsored by 22 House representatives, 13 senators and supported by the Colorado Department of Education. Merrifield also received moral support from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when he met them briefly during the 2008 campaign.

“I used the three minutes I had with them to talk about my concerns about the threats to arts and standardized tests,” Merrifield said.

He calls this bill the “most important” he’s sponsored during his eight years in office.

“Because I was a music teacher, some people may say this bill is self-gratifying,” Merrifield said. “But as a music teacher, I saw firsthand what a difference these classes made in kids’ lives.”

A Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities study in 2008 found that while most public schools offer some arts classes, an estimated 29,000 students attend schools with no formal arts education. The study also found 53 percent of high school students were not taking any arts classes.

In addition, the study showed what Merrifield also discovered when speaking to school principals: 75 percent said the amount of time needed for reading, writing, math and other subjects is their biggest barrier to offering art classes. Other hurdles include decreased funding for arts education, failure to make art classes a priority, finding quality art teachers and in rural areas, and limited access to arts venues such as theaters, museums or dance performances, the report said.

Earlier this session, Gov. Bill Ritter and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien backed three initiatives that will help promote the art industry statewide. Another study by the arts council showed art-related professions rank as the fifth largest employer statewide, with 186,000 jobs in the creative fields including architecture, landscape design, performing arts, new media and traditional arts.

Merrifield supports the governor’s efforts but said a first step is requiring the arts classes in every school district.

“We can’t expand the creative industry if we don’t develop (at a young age) the creative talent,” he said.

In addition to his own life, Hodur said there’s no question art and music classes have positively impacted his students at Coronado High. He points to studies that show students’ attention spans are doubled when they are involved in the arts.

“When you are playing a nine-minute symphony you have to be focused,” he said. “You learn to be patient and not get easily distracted. You develop a work ethic and if you can succeed in the arts it carries over to other classes.”