The row of lights over the stage in Gadsden Elementary’s cafeteria might not shine down on the aspiring young thespians and musicians at the May Street school next year. The props, scenery and musical instruments that have been a central part of the school’s two-decade tradition of fine arts programming might end up collecting dust in storage.
"We've had a fine arts magnet here for 20 years. We’ve won awards for it,” says Heidi Lamb, an art teacher at Gadsden. “The district has had to make many difficult decisions because of the huge budget shortfalls.”
A districtwide restructuring would send Gadsden’s fine arts programs to Garrison Elementary. Lamb is leading a campaign to try and save the arts at Gadsden by applying for a grant from Pepsi, whose “Refresh Everything” campaign is donating millions of dollars to causes selected through online voting.
Lamb is hoping that if they can win one of two $250,000 prizes this month, the school will be able to continue offering classes in dance, drama and music to all their students, instead of just the few who are accepted to the new arts magnet school, Garrison Elementary, which will replace them.
“With our program, all our students, K–5, participate in dance, drama, strings, art and music every week. Nobody is excluded,” Lamb explains.
If their efforts are successful, the money will allow them to keep the three teachers who might otherwise lose their jobs next year, as well as fund field trips to local cultural events. Some of the money will also be used to create a non–profit dedicated to raising funds to sustain arts programming.
“The ultimate goal is to keep the program running with private funding,” Lamb says.
Although arts programming is often seen as expendable, losing the program at Gadsden could have significant long term impact. According to statistics compiled by Americans for the Arts, “low arts involvement” more than triples the likelihood of students dropping out of school. Other research has shown that arts education improves academic skills and test scores.
“A lot of the kids, these skills they pick up now, when they get into middle school and high school, are going to enable them to get into productive pursuits instead of getting in with the wrong crowd,” says Lamb.
In the Savannah–Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS), already plagued by a graduation rate several points below the state’s average (and Georgia’s rate has been among the lowest in the country), losing arts programming certainly won’t help.
“Each dropout costs the public sector $209,100 over a lifetime as a result of reduced tax payments, increased public health and welfare costs, and heightened likelihood of criminal behavior,” says a policy paper prepared for the National Governor’s Association in October of last year.
In 2007, the SCCPSS had a high school drop out rate around 9 percent. When applied to the population of 600 students at Gadsden, the 54 students who would be statistically likely to drop out of high school would cost taxpayers $11.3 million over their lifetime.
refuses to give up hope. In the last few days, Gadsden has steadily climbed through the ranks, but with a week left, still has some ground to cover.
“I truly believe we can do this,” she says. “It’s gonna take every effort we can put into it.”