By Randall Bertrand
On Thursday I had the privilege of seeing the Matanzas High school Troupe 7108’s stage performance of “Newsies” on opening night. Last year, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in schools being shut down just two weeks before the musical was set to open. And here was the stage all lit up again.
Just like the “ghost light” that continues to shine, the spirit of the performing arts never dies. But fine arts programs are threatened across our state and even within Flagler County.
As I am writing this, forces are at work that would limit higher educational opportunities for these performers as they look to a potential career in the performing arts. The Florida Senate saw Senate Bill 86 introduced in February in an attempt to award the hard-earned Bright Futures Scholarship only to students who were pursuing a degree or career-certificate program on an approved list. Many, including myself, interpreted this as eliminating degree programs in the fine arts from receiving any Bright Futures money.
This bill met with so much public outrage and resistance from State Senate member constituents that it has since been amended to state that the Board of Governors, the State Board of Education, and the independent Colleges and Universities of Florida must publish a list of degrees and certificate programs “which do not lead directly to employment.” The Bright Futures scholarship program has long been cannon fodder for the Legislature, its award levels repeatedly slashed while tuition at post-secondary institutions increases at astronomical rates and life-long student loan debt saddles graduates who only want to chase the American dream. This move by the Legislature is nothing more than a funding cut cloaked in an attempt to help students find employment. Be ever vigilant students, parents, and educators.
In our own county the discussion of realigning and redistricting schools has become a common topic of discussion as residential development explodes in our little corner of the world (last month Palm Coast registered its highest number of residential building permits since before the housing crash a decade and a half ago).
Luckily, the Flagler County School Board appears to be leaning toward simply moving 6th grade students to Buddy Taylor or Indian Trails, maintaining the integrity of those two middle schools. It’s in middle schools that students first start taking more specialized programs of study and exploring extracurricular activities such as the Fine Arts. To eliminate our middle schools in favor of the K-8/9-12 model would dilute the ability to deliver and maintain a vibrant arts program within our schools. Our middle schools have crucibles for young performers to start developing those skills that will enrich them later when they attend high school, and even more so when they start college or careers.
Any career is well served with people that can comfortably stand in front of an audience, clearly communicate, and keep their audience engaged. I’ve seen many great ideas from extremely intelligent engineers fail to materialize because they couldn’t keep the audience engaged and see the promise their idea held. I was lucky. I spent many of my high school days perfecting my skills as a performer and artist while also participating in team sports. My current career as an engineer for one of the largest consumer health care companies in the world would seem to bear little resemblance to a career in fine arts. But you must look closely and understand what the arts provide, what they enable in students, whatever their career choices.
When students take classes in drawing, painting, or sculpture, they are not only honing their creative skills, they are developing the ability to accept criticism and feedback from peers and educators. Imagine pouring your heart and soul into an artistic creation and then putting it in front of others to critique. It helps to develop that ability to accept comment without resorting to a defensive posture.
The bottom line is that the arts do more than just serve as entertainment for us or as diversions or resume-padding for students, let alone as luxuries for school districts. Like team sports, the arts develop key interpersonal and critical skills that are rarely, if ever, taught in traditional STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and math). Team sports programs see occasional budget cuts, but nothing remotely as extensive as arts programs in secondary schools. This district is committed to the arts. But even that commitment is under pressure if the message from Tallahassee is that the arts are discretionary, expendable, slashable, and fine arts students are taken less seriously than their STEM counterparts.
As I watched “Newsies” Thursday night, the performers told a story that many can relate to–and not just the story of the play itself. This show had undergone so much hardship, but despite all the obstacles, the energy of these kids was palpable. The arts program at Matanzas High School reflects arts programs all over the country with budgets routinely downsized but persevering through grit and determination.
The relevance of this show is not lost on me either, as “Newsies” is based on the New York City newsboy strike from 1899, where kids sought to force change in the way they were compensated by the large newspapers of the day. A group of kids are just trying to make a life for themselves. The powerful take something away from them. I apologize for the vagueness, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. The kids say “enough,” and rise to stand strong against the uncompromising employers. They realize that in their numbers there’s power.
As we see our elected officials seek to strip away hard-earned benefits like Bright Futures scholarships, we must realize that in our numbers there is strength. We have a lesson to learn here. If the powerful seek to take something away, we have the power in our numbers to make a change. If the erosion of arts programs in our schools continue, the quality and purpose of our schools will suffer, and our next generation will be that much more impoverished, however lucrative its careers.