For years, advocates in New Jersey have been pushing to increase access to arts education. Recently, their dream came true.

The state is leading the nation with universal access to arts education, Gov. Phil Murphy announced this month after the release of a new report from the nonprofit Arts Ed NJ showing more than 1 million students are actively participating in some form of art education, a 25% increase over a decade ago.

Arts Ed NJ founder and Director Bob Morrison said the arts are not only required in state learning standards, but they play a fundamental role in a well-rounded education.

“We don’t teach math to create the next generation of mathematicians. We don’t teach the arts to create the next generation of artists,” Morrison said. “We teach all of these subjects and we teach the arts to create great people regardless of the path they choose.”

For teachers on the ground floor, the news is uplifting as they find creative ways to provide the best programs possible to students.

“We are fortunate enough where we do have a budget that allows us to get what we need,” said Pleasantville elementary art teacher Tara Bach. “But we go above and beyond to get them more.”

For the past three years, the Washington Avenue School where Bach teaches was the recipient of several arts grants that allowed them to incorporate more arts programming, including an artist in residency program that brings in real artists to teach the students, and assemblies to increase arts exposure and highlight the benefits across all subject areas.

This year, a drumming program will be incorporated into language arts and math.

“I think that art and music enhances everything else, so when we can give them more art, then it’s helping them make connections with their other subject areas,” Bach said. “It helps some kids make the connections that are less concrete and hard to make in other areas.”

After seeing how arts education helped her daughter, who was diagnosed as a child with a traumatic brain injury, Tamar LaSure-Owens, a first-grade teacher at Pleasantville’s Leeds Avenue School, began pushing for more art programs for her students.

Two years ago, she partnered with Cygnus Creative Arts to offer ballet lessons for first and second grade students at Leeds Avenue.

“You have to be an advocate,” she said, adding there has to be buy-in from administrators. “The arts build on any career, any skill in school. Giving (students) that added benefit of enjoying something and being able to develop those skills as well is crucial.”

Mark Kadetsky, the Egg Harbor Township School District fine and performing arts supervisor, said he is seeing increased participation in arts programs in many facets, including higher education. Kadetsky is a director at Rowan University for its concert band, which targets students who have an interest in music but are not pursuing a degree in music.

“Even at the university level, they’re being very responsive to this, but it’s starting to boom now,” he said.

Kadetsky said Egg Harbor Township has at least one music and art teacher in every school, a large-scale national anthem singing project that attracts 700 singers and musicians, musical theater productions in both middle and high school, a variety of visual art, dance and music electives in middle and high school, and the district is in the midst of creating a $35,000 recording studio.

“Arts reflect the community, and the community should reflect the arts,” Kadetsky said.

Morrison said the effort to improve arts education in New Jersey began in the 1980s after a report showed the state’s deficiencies in that area.

“That report really began the shift in mindset across the state that more needed to be done to improve the availability of arts programs, the accessibility of arts programs across the state, so that actually began the 30-year journey to bring us to where we are today,” Morrison said.

Arts education is required by the state, and while universal access has been achieved, Morrison said there is more to do.

“Just because we have universal access does not necessarily mean what the students have access to is equitable,” he said, including the variety of disciplines offered, especially at the elementary level. “These are things that we are able to turn our attention to now that we can put the access question off to the side.”

Contact: 609-272-7251

Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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