By Andrew Cremata

What role does art play in education? For many public schools in America, the answer can be traced to funding or the lack thereof. A number of Skagway School students believe art is an essential part of their education and hold a variety of opinions about why art may be underappreciated by both schools and the general public.

The benefits of arts education are well-documented. 

A 2012 study by The College Board found that students who took four years of art in high school scored on average about 100 points better on their SATs than students who took a half year or less.

Meanwhile, funding for the arts in public schools dropped precipitously over the past two decades. The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002, prioritized science and math over other subjects. In school districts around the United States, funding for art programs was significantly cut and art teachers were let go. The 2008 recession saw further budgetary cuts to art programs nationwide.

Without a funding mechanism, art programs are often shuffled into the mix of various extracurricular programs, like sports, where they’re forced to compete for supplemental funds to remain viable. 

As of 2009, 73% of Alaska School Districts reported they had no written arts curriculum.

The art program at Skagway School is partially funded through the Rural Art Initiative (RAI), sponsored by the Alaska Arts Education Consortium.

Skagway art students aren’t shy about expressing their opinions on the subject. In Valerie Larson’s seventh period art class, students unanimously agreed that instead of competing with extracurricular activities for funding, art programs should be included in the broader curriculum that includes math, science and history.

“Art should be equally funded with science and math,” student Gwendolyn Lathrop said. “If you can’t learn it (in school), you may lose interest in it.”

While working on a colorful collage, Lathrop eagerly expressed her relationship with art. “Art is therapeutic. While your hands are busy moving, it opens you up as a person. I’m able to express myself in so many different ways.”

Fellow student Kaylee Salazar agrees, “When you’re focused on something, it allows you to work through things.”

Education experts agree with Salazar’s statement. Not only does education stimulate student’s imaginations, it also helps them develop cognitive and problem-solving skills at a young age. 

A study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles titled “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies,” showed compelling evidence that consistent engagement in arts education positively impacts students in multiple areas, including cognitive skills and social skills. The study also revealed that art students experienced higher high school graduation rates and increased their likelihood of pursuing higher education.

Larson described her approach to art education as “hands-on.” She said she encourages students to engage in artistic endeavors that occupy their hands while offering them time away from computer and phone screens. 

In the classroom, students worked on a variety of individual art projects. All of them were tactile. While Lathrop worked on her collage, Lila Lawson shaped clay of various colors into impressively realistic flowers. 

Salazar put the finishing touches on a character design drawing while describing her creative process in detail. 

“When I design a character, I can express emotions through that character instead of myself,” Salazar said.

She explained that complex personal emotions are woven into the lines, form and color of her artistic creations. 

In the age of social media and the ubiquitous use of smartphone devices, providing students with time to immerse themselves in a form of self-expression far away from a computer screen seems like a concept that parents and school faculty would unanimously support. So why is it that art programs are struggling to survive in the United States?

“Nowadays, technology is often the focus in school,” said Salazar. She also pointed out that professional artists, like animators and architects, are often working behind the scenes, preventing many people from understanding their fundamental role in the creation of everything from popular movies to homes and high-rises.

Lathrop surmised that people may not appreciate art because “they haven’t done it themselves.”

Whatever the reason, without formal art education in school, students are unlikely to pursue a professional career in the arts. 

While discussing this topic, Lathrop, showing wisdom beyond her years, said, “Your occupation is your life.”

Skagway’s art program is popular with students, but funding will likely remain an issue in the coming years. The Skagway Borough Assembly is poised to approve the school’s 2025 budget in full, including the supplemental budget. So, for now, the program seems safe. 

Larson is proud of her students and eager to extoll the benefits of her class. 

What’s on her wish list? 

“We really need a kiln,” Larson responded.

Her students immediately agreed.