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Arts Education: Big Thought Leads to Thriving Minds


by Jerome Weeks 22 Jul 2008

DISD board of trustees member Ron Price on school bands as a measure of lackluster arts education: Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm on the political and economic benefits of better arts education: Superintendent Ron Price on the need for after-school arts programs in South Dallas: Gigi Antoni, president of Big Thought, on the name change […]

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DISD board of trustees member Ron Price on school bands as a measure of lackluster arts education:

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm on the political and economic benefits of better arts education:

Superintendent Ron Price on the need for after-school arts programs in South Dallas:

Gigi Antoni, president of Big Thought, on the name change to Thriving Minds:

The Dallas Arts Learning Initiative has been given a shorter, new handle. But it doesn’t make the nationally recognized, $40 million, arts-education partnership project any easier to explain.

Simply put, DALI is a three-year program to increase the arts curriculum in Dallas’ public schools while better integrating the in-class and after-school efforts of arts organizations, teachers, community groups, parents and students.

But at a Tuesday morning press conference at the South Dallas Cultural Center, city officials announced that it was goodbye, DALI; hello, Thriving Minds. The name change is actually a sign of the program’s ambition and success. Having started in Pleasant Grove, Oak Cliff and Far East Dallas, it’s expanding into South and West Dallas.

DALI/Thriving Minds is a partnership among cultural organizations, DISD, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Big Thought, the managing partner. Big Thought started 20 years ago by bringing artists to teach in Dallas libraries and classrooms — as a supplement to what was a seriously cutback public school arts curriculum — and it has since expanded into other arts-learning programs, coordinating field trips, offering arts-related teaching materials and curricula and trying to equalize access to cultural programming among schoolchildren of different backgrounds and neighborhoods.

Now it’s taking on an even bigger part in rescuing DISD’s arts education programs. In six months, Thriving Minds is expected to add three more Dallas neighborhoods.

The name change, explained Gigi Antoni, president of Big Thought, came about because DALI was always a temporary stop-gap, “just the name on a grant proposal.” And the partnership found that “Dallas Arts Learning Initiative” wasn’t selling well to parents or schoolchildren.

“What people in neighborhoods and kids think is creative learning isn’t always what grownups and cultural organizations think is creative learning,” Antoni told the gathering of city and cultural officials. Different names were presented to three school groups around Dallas, and Thriving Minds was the winner.

Big Thought has found, Antoni explained, that the biggest hindrance to access to arts education efforts and cultural programming is a lack of awareness on the part of families about what is already on offer. DALI simply didn’t “appeal to the market we were trying to serve,” so the name had to go.

In 2006, Big Thought was awarded an $8 million grant from the independent, New York-based Wallace Foundation to establish DALI as a three-year program — Dallas was the only city to win such a grant. This money was eventually leveraged to $39.8 million as DALI was linked to the addition of 140 new music and arts specialists in Dallas schools and to the requirement of 45 minutes of art and music training each week for every student. This was the first arts requirement in DISD since 1978.

“Each one of our elementary schools — for the first time in the history of the Dallas Independent School District — has an arts teacher. That is significant,” said Ron Price, DISD board member.

The additional money has come from the Bank of America, the Harold Simmons Foundation, the Embrey Family Foundation, the city of Dallas and the federal Department of Education. The community-cultural-local-federal-private initiative has sparked attention around the country.

“I’m a really practical person,” said Mary Suhm, Dallas city manager. “I’m always wanting to know, what does this do for the city? Does this effort improve our community and our city? And for a city manager, this is how it works: Research confirms that arts education improves performance in children in schools. Improved performance results in success, success results in a workforce that’s improved and strong. A strong workforce is what businesses want when they look to relocate in an area, and when I have businesses relocating, we have a better tax base. We have a better tax base, I’m not increasing taxes.”

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