Superintendent's Notebook: Creating a community that embraces the arts

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I have a “secret” to share: Culture Club Portland, a unique collaboration with our city’s cultural institutions to bring the arts to all Portland Public Schools’ students, is so successful it’s worthy of national replication.

But before that happens, I want to make sure everyone in Portland knows about Culture Club Portland.

The program, generously funded through an anonymous donor, is now in its fourth year of delivering outstanding arts and cultural opportunities to thousands of our students. Surprisingly, however, many of our community members – and even some school staff – don’t know much about it.

That’s why we’re now trying to raise awareness about Culture Club Portland. It’s a collaboration between four arts organizations – the Portland Museum of Art, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Portland Stage and Portland Ovations – and the Portland Public Schools, along with the Portland Education Foundation.

Culture Club Portland’s goal is to ensure that each student in the Portland Public Schools will participate in at least one program per year offered by each of the four member organizations. That means each student in our district getting four unique cultural experiences every year.

The private, philanthropic donor has contributed $650,000 over four years to provide these fantastic opportunities for our students, at a time when tight budgets have meant a reduction in public funding for the arts.

Now, however, we are at a point where we need to focus on how to sustain and grow this wonderful program.

To help do that, the School Board recently approved the establishment of a Culture Club Portland Ad Hoc Committee. The committee is charged with making recommendations for sustainability and growth, including how to expand and diversify the program’s funding.

“We have this amazing donation that comes in, but we’re at a point in time where that donation needs to be met by other sources so that we can keep and grow the program and the investment in the Portland Public Schools,” said Kate Snyder, executive director of the Portland Education Foundation, which administers the program.

Snyder said PEF will launch a fundraising campaign this spring, and will be looking to the community for support.

Carolyn Nishon, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, said she has “been able to see and experience firsthand” how Culture Club Portland impacts our students.

One reason the program works so well is that our city is just the right size for it.

 “We live in a city that is brimming with cultural institutions” almost right around the corner from one another, Nishon noted. To have a world-class symphony, art museum, stage and presenting company in such close proximity “provides such a unique opportunity for our Portland Public Schools’ students,” she said.

Because Portland isn’t a huge metropolis, it’s easy for our students to get to these institutions. Some can even travel there by bus, because the successful new transportation agreement between the school district and Greater Portland METRO provides our high school students with free passes to use their buses not only for school but at any time.

Culture Club Portland also brings programs directly into the schools. For example, professional actors from Portland Stage put on an abridged version of “Romeo and Juliet” this fall for eighth-graders at Lincoln Middle School. The students said that short version made them eager to see the whole play.

Inspiring our students to immerse themselves in the arts and build a lifelong relationship with them is a great benefit of Culture Club Portland. Students create a habit or tradition of going to the art museum or a concert or play and may encourage others in their families to do the same.

The program also fosters students’ involvement in the arts as artists themselves. That’s a boon to our many students with extraordinary artistic talent.

The importance of the arts is underscored in our nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA. Art and music, alongside math and language arts, are part of its definition of a “well-rounded education.”

Culture Club Portland is creating a community that values and embraces the arts. That’s well worth our support.

Jeanne Crocker is interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. She can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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