By Cheryl Toomey, University Relations Graduate Assistant

The Southeast Center for Education in the Arts (SCEA), an outreach program in the UTC College of Arts and Sciences, is committed to the promotion and delivery of quality arts education. Its seventh annual National Arts and Education Forum focused on what exactly quality arts education means.

The forum, which took place May 14 – 16, engages attendees through a series of sessions framed around key questions stemming from current issues in arts and education. The theme for the 2014 Forum was “Contexts of Quality: What is Quality Arts Education?”

“The future years of the forum are really going to focus on that question of what is quality arts education and we’re going to do what we can to answer that,” said Laurie Melnik, Interim SCEA Director and Director of Theatre Education.

The forum convenes a national audience on the UTC for the purpose of brainstorming ideas, disseminating research, and developing strategies that advance best practices and shape policy recommendations that improve the quality of arts education in our schools.

“I think the forum is an exciting opportunity for UTC to get a pulse of what’s happening in the field. Arts education isn’t just for those who work directly in the arts. We’re really having a conversation about education and supporting the whole child. Having that conversation at UTC is an opportunity to really identify us as experts in the field,” said Melnik.

This year, SCEA launched a research set that particularly looked at contexts of quality arts education across the South.

“There have been lots of national studies that looked at what quality education should be, how it should look, but when it comes to contextualizing that research on a local level, sometimes there are some challenges. What happens on a national level might not be what needs to happen on a local level,” said Melnik.

This regional study was commissioned by South Arts with partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The first part of the study involved the distribution of 17,500 surveys to principals in K-12 public schools throughout the southeast region. While this provided valuable quantitative data, it became apparent that qualitative data was also needed. The second part of the study partnered SCEA with South Arts to perform case studies of programs in the southeast that were identified as examples of high quality instruction in dance, drama, music, and visual arts.

“In this year’s research with South Arts, we have had the opportunity to bring together pictures of the contexts and people who produce those learning experiences in our region,” said Joel Baxley, Director of Visual Art Education at SCEA.

The goal of the study was to improve access to quality arts education in the South by providing a greater understanding of what quality arts education means.

“We launched that research set with South Arts during the forum, but we also had some breakout sessions that looked at specific pieces of that, whether it was in regards to one art form or something that was happening programmatically across the state, just to get some strategies for how we can move the needle of arts education in our home towns,” said Melnik.

Over the course of the two-day forum, participants actively explored issues, shared emerging research, developed practical strategies, and discussed policy recommendations in arts education. Between sessions, small group discussions helped participants to reflect on session topics and key questions while considering implications in their own work and practice.

“Here at the SCEA we have a long tradition of saying, ‘Here’s what we know about quality. Here’s what questions we have. Here’s what we know needs to happen. Let’s brainstorm together.’ This is a place where we like to disseminate ideas. We like to have innovative research to share, and I think this is a great community to do that,” said Melnik. “It’s not just classroom teachers or arts specialists, it’s all different kinds of people who are passionate about arts education and know that it makes a difference in people’s lives, which is really unique.”

SCEA encourages the participation of a variety of professionals from a variety of disciplines and contexts so that forum participants walk away with multiple ways to increase access to quality arts education in the communities they serve. Forum participants include K-12 school and university educators, teaching artists, professional development providers, researchers, administrators, and cultural organization leaders from across the country.

“I think it would be great for pre-service teachers to attend. We had some this last time and they loved it because they are getting all these ideas and building their toolbox before they go into the classroom,” said Melnik. “We’ve had pre-service teachers that have attended that aren’t necessarily going to teach arts – maybe they’re a grade level teacher that’s really interested in interdisciplinary curriculum. I think that’s something we could encourage more.”

Melnik hopes that the forum provides participants with numerous benefits.

“It’s an active brainstorm, and we hope people walk away thinking, ‘You know, I’m going to try this.’ We want people to walk away with implementable strategies, that they learn about best practices and how other people are addressing needs in their own communities. We hope that people walk away with some networking opportunities. Sometimes people meet and collaborative efforts happen because of the forum,” said Melnikl.

SCEA serves a diverse population of educators and practitioners to strengthen and deepen arts-rich curriculum and instruction in a variety of school and community environments. In addition to the annual forum, SCEA activities include professional development programs, workshops and residencies, and consultation services.

“At SCEA, our mission has always been to promote high quality work in arts education. Our work in professional development facilitates the work of arts specialists, administrators, and non-arts teachers who are responsible for students’ learning experiences,” said Baxley.

For more information about SCEA, visit their website (http://www.utc.edu/southeast-center-education-arts/).

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