Houston Arts Partners Conference 2012

Houston Arts Partners Conference, Alley Theater-Marshall MS-HGOco-Project GRAD panel, Day One at the MFAH, September 14, 2012

I love Houston, TX. It’s a city that is big and sprawling and full of oil money and huge medical centers and capitalism. It’s classy and sophisticated, which leads to heavy investment in the high arts like the ballet, the symphony, and the opera. But it’s also recently majority-minority, segregated, multi-racial, diverse. It’s a city that is poised, smart, and successful, filled with lots of problems, and lots of potential. As someone who has taken the Sociology of Houston Class at at Rice University taught by Stephen Klineberg, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which has been collecting data via the Houston Area Survey for decades (seriously, read these surveys, the information is mind-blowing), I swell with pride when I say the city’s name. I dare you to watch this clip and not swell with pride too:



(For what it’s worth, I emailed the Kinder Institute to try to buy Interesting Times and it is apparently not for sale for private use/was wayyyy out of my price range.)

Houston is blessed with a handful of very dedicated individuals running nonprofit organizations to promote arts education. The Houston Arts Partners, an offshoot organization of the Young Audiences of Houston, was created in response to a “specific request from Houston area arts administrators for a more efficient and effective method to access arts educational resources in Houston.” Their website provides services that range from centralized, online booking, to grant writing and customized collaborative program support. Their goal is “the successful development, implementation and management of a centralized arts programming and support services website specifically designed to more efficiently and effectively match educational needs of Houston Area Schools and School District’s with the resources and capabilities of Houston’s premiere artists and arts organizations.”

Enter the second annual Houston Arts Partners conference, September 14-15, 2012. Also enter a the toast of Texas education and arts administration, plus a ton of teachers.

As you can imagine the theme of the weekend was fostering partnerships: namely partnerships between local nonprofit arts organizations and schools. The conference was split into two days with two missions. The first day was held in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and was geared toward arts and education administrators. The attire and the attitude was formal, in contrast with the second, more informal day at the University of Houston, geared toward teachers. Each day featured coffee and danish breakfast, an invigorating speech from keynote speaker and arts advocate Tim Lautzenheiser, and panels about successful partnerships. For example, one panel featured Joe Angel Babb from the Alley Theater; Sandra Bernhard from HGOco; Michael Harrison from Marshall Middle School; and Craig Landwehr from Project GRAD. They talked about the after-school arts programs they’ve implemented in Marshall Middle School.

Not gonna lie, there were multiple times during this weekend’s conference when I felt like tearing up. Some of these stories, and some of the videos (because nothing makes you cry like sappy music and pictures of young, diverse students painting and singing), were inspiring. Storytelling was at the heart of every panel – how did we get here, what impact have we had, and how can you get involved. Perhaps the most affecting part of the conference was on the second day when we split up. Conference-goers got to pick and choose two sessions to go to out of fourteen, such as “The Art in Science for the Elementary Grades,” “Dancing Science,” or “Discovering the Ocean Through Art.” I’d like to describe the two sessions I attended, offering them up as examples of some of the innovative programming and collaboration being fostered in Houston.

The first session was “Moving Story: Transforming Writing into Film.” The panel featured representatives from Writers in the Schools (writer Sara Cooper and WITS director Long Chu), Aurora Picture Show (media arts instructor Camilo Gonzalez), HISD (principal Marie Moreno), and FotoFest (Literacy Through Photography director Glenn Bailey). WITS and Aurora collaborated at Kaleidoscope Middle School to create short stop-motion animation films from poems written by the students. WITS and FotoFest collaborated at Herod Elementary and Lanier Middle School to teach students how to use photography as a tool of observation and writing.


Kaleidoscope Middle School with WITS and Aurora from Aurora Picture Show on Vimeo.


“Song of Houston: Moving Beyond the Traditional ‘Arts Ed’ Model,” the second session, was a panel of Karen Capo from Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture Project, Evan Wildstein from Houston Grand Opera, and Anita Lundvall, principal of Neff Elementary. They talked about Song of Houston, a program at Neff Elementary developed by HGOco and supported by Rice University’s Center for Education that integrates art into the already-existing curriculums of math, science, history, etc, as well as engages the community.

By the way, did you know that the second week of September is National Arts in Education Week? Because I did not.

Another interesting thing I discovered on the second day was that all of the teachers were asking the question “do you have hard data?” They were looking for facts and statistics and costs and proof that arts education really does work, presumably for purposes of convincing a superior to consider implementing a program. Also interesting, the arts organizations always answered yes. Which means the information is out there, but it is not necessarily getting where it needs to go.

Fine arts is one of the state-approved Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) academic disciplines that must be offered in grades K-12.  All school districts must comply with education statute (Texas Education Code) and education rule (Texas Administrative Code). As a result of the passage of Senate Bill 815 in 2003 during the 78th legislative session in 2003, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for “all foundation and enrichment content areas must be taught when providing instruction, including music/fine arts.” In 2010, in an effort to ensure that every student receives a well-balanced education, including fine arts from elementary through high school, the Texas legislature enacted new requirements for middle school and high school arts: two arts course requirements were added to middle school and high school graduation standards by TEA. Middle school students are required to complete one fine arts course, and high school students are required to complete one fine arts credit. Approved music courses include band, vocal ensemble, orchestra, music history, music theory, applied music and IB/AP music courses. Elementary schools must provide TEKS-based instruction in all three Fine Arts subject areas (Art, Music, and Theatre) at each grade level (K-5). Middle schools must provide TEKS-based instruction in Art, Music, and/or Theatre in grades 6, 7, and/or 8. High schools must offer TEKS-based instruction in at least two of the four Fine Arts subject areas of Art, Dance, Music, and Theatre.

All this is to say that fine arts education is something we’re just starting to take seriously in Texas. Policy this young and this comprehensive takes time to implement. These past few, and next few, years will decide the landscape of arts education in Texas in fairly definitive ways. Like most things in Houston, there is a lot of work to be done, but damn are there also a lot of people trying really cool things and working hard. Even if you’re not from Houston, I think there’s a lot to be learned from this conference and from the partnerships that are developing. I even heard audience members mumbling at the conference about how cool it would be to bring something like the Houston Arts Partners to other Texas cities, like Austin or Dallas or San Antonio. As conference co-chair and Education Director at the MFAH,  Victoria Ramirez, said in her closing remarks on the first day, “let’s do something.”

If you’re interested in finding out more about Fine Arts policy and implementation in Texas, CEDFA would be the place to go (in fact, Thomas Waggoner, the program director of CEDFA, moderated one of the panels this weekend): “The Center for Educator Development in Fine Arts (CEDFA) was established by the Texas Education Agency to support Fine Arts education in Texas Schools. CEDFA promotes implementation of the Fine Arts TEKS in addition to providing professional development opportunities and instructional resources for fine arts educators.”

On a completely unrelated note, other things I learned how to do this weekend in Houston include Jenga:

Because board games are crucial to arts education…right?


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