Six months ago, I began talking painting lessons. It has been fascinating, exhilarating, challenging and more than anything, educational.
While the majority of public school program and funding decisions are dictated by federal and state mandates the area in which local education and community leaders have enormous influence and decision making power is with extracurricular activities, such as sports, music and the arts. You can get a fairly good idea of what a local community values by examining how they allocate resources and what types of extracurricular activities are sponsored and emphasized in their schools.
The local public school environment and the values that are embraced and projected within that environment molds and influences the attitudes, beliefs and values of children, teachers, parents and general citizens of the community. What is taught and emphasized in schools influence and impact the culture and values of the community at large. Not only is that influence felt today, but many of those children eventually graduate and settle in the same community, bringing those attitudes and values to bear on the community for years to come. In other words, the values, priorities and culture of the local high school as reflected through the types of programs emphasized have a long lasting impact on the general values and culture of the community in which it is located.
One area in particular where programming can impact a community relates to economic development. Social scientist Richard Florida has conducted extensive research on the impact of arts and culture on economic development. In his groundbreaking work, The Rise of the Creative Class, he indentifies the emerging class of “creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. In addition, all members of the Creative Class-whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs-share a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit. For the members of the Creative Class, every aspect and every manifestation of creativity-technological, cultural and economic-is interlinked and inseparable.
The Creative Class is the norm-setting class of our time. But its norms are very different: Individuality, self-expression and openness to difference are favored over the homogeneity conformity and “fitting in” that defined the organizational age.” (Florida, 2002, pp. 8,9)
According to Florida, this Creative Class can have a profound impact on economic development and a city or region’s economic vitality. Members of the Creative Class are precisely the types of people civic leaders should work to attract to their communities to live, work and raise their families. Or, as summarized in an article that appeared in Economic Development Quarterly titled “Arts and Crafts: Critical to Economic Development”:
"Because of their knowledge-based jobs, Florida asserts that members of the creative class tend to contribute directly to the growth of a thriving economy. Equally important, members of the creative class tend to prefer those jobs in geographical locations with high levels of culture and diversity. Florida thus argues that regions that support the arts will attract and retain the creative class and consequently enjoy higher levels of economic prosperity.” (Lemore, et al., 2013, p. 222)
It may seem like a reach to consider economic development of the local economy as a factor in determining how to invest a high school’s extracurricular resources, but what is emphasized at the high school level is absorbed by students who eventually graduate and become residents of the town. What students are exposed to and learn impacts what they will later value as community investments. It’s hard to imagine that someone who was not exposed to a quality music and arts curriculum as a student will value music and the arts as a community investment as an adult.
Further, according to Florida, members of the Creative Class tend to be more successful and engaged in the community. They are precisely the type of people a city, town or region wants to attract to their area to live, work and raise their children. The ability for a city, town or region to attract such people is becoming increasingly important as the Creative Class is composed of citizens who are more likely to be community “movers and shakers.”
The challenge for communities comes from the fact that members of the Creative Class have more freedom to choose where they want to live. Such freedom results from improvements in transportation and communication (Internet, video conferencing, Skype, etc.). In the past, when a company moved to a different city or state, all employees were required to pick up and move with the company to the new location. Today, companies are much more willing to offer flexibility to valuable “creative” employees to remain with the company while they live in another location. Just as the Creative Class includes the types of employees that companies value and want to keep, they are also the type of people a city, town or region should want to have in their community as citizens.
Thus, the question becomes: What do communities have to offer as resources and values that will appeal to members of the Creative Class? According to Florida, a major, if not the major, community value or feature, is a creative, vibrant, arts-oriented culture. And one important component of such a vibrant arts culture is the type of commitment the community makes to the arts in the schools. Schools are often a major decision influencer for people who are considering where to live, work and raise their families and members of the Creative Class in particular, are very interested in the emphasis the local school district places on music and the arts.
Or, stated differently, creative people want to work with people and live in communities that value creativity. And because music and the arts are the most powerful tool in our educational and community arsenal to teach creativity, it is imperative that educational and community leaders consider that impact when allocating educational resources.
Inasmuch as creativity is the currency of the future and a major key to driving a vibrant local economy decisions regarding how a school invests in extracurricular activities such as music, theater and visual arts is immensely important as those decisions and priorities have both an immediate educational impact on the students who participate in them, but also a long-term community economic development impact beyond the school walls.