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Arts programming in District 191 — providing opportunities and encouraging achievement in all students

Arts programming in District 191 — providing opportunities and encouraging achievement in all students

District 191 is proud to provide a comprehensive arts experience from pre-kindergarten to graduation that stokes academic achievement and provides amazing experiences for all students. Whether through music, theater or art, studies show that a strong foundation in the creative arts helps motivate students, improve attitudes and attendance, and improve academic performance in other subject areas. 

student painting a ceramic piece of artwork

Arts programming in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 are seeing some incredible expansions and a refined focus thanks to a Comprehensive Arts Planning Program (CAPP) award from the Perpich Center for Arts Education. This legislatively-funded program is awarded to different districts each year to support and assist in creating a district-wide, three-year strategic plan focused on arts that reviews, improves and expands efforts for arts education. 

District Systems Improvement & Student Achievement Coordinator Rachel Lucius has been involved in the process since the initial award in 2021. In that time, the district has conducted research and review of arts programming, identified areas of strength and areas to improve, and made plans for the future with new initiatives at all grade levels. 

“We want to be creative with our resources and maximize everything,” said Lucius. “We had more than 400 people participate in a process to hear priorities and identify our next steps and heard that while we have great offerings, there are ways to improve. We are combining these efforts with our work in the Pathways model to give kids a chance to experience arts and to have no dead ends when it comes to a student wanting to pursue a chosen path.”

Introducing exploration and broadening experiences

One of the main opportunity areas identified was the need for more enrichment opportunities for students, which has taken the form of “Spark Experiences” at the elementary level, and more options for older students. In a unique program, all fifth grade students in the district will be experiencing small group lessons on eight different instruments throughout the year..

“It’s very clear to the students that this experience is about more than just music,” said instrumental music teacher Miles Kessler. “It allows elementary kids to practice the skills that they need in middle school like sharing resources and being responsible for tools like instruments while also learning music fundamentals.”

Joining forces to make an impactful sound

For middle school and high school students, there is increasing excitement about participating in arts programming through the visual arts, music and theater. Scott Kosloski teaches orchestra and band at Nicollet Middle School and orchestra at Burnsville High School and has seen changes to the program over the years, and is excited about where the district is headed. 

student playing the saxophone

“Choosing a music elective is the first choice that middle school students get to make,” said Kosloski. “We are focused on guiding students through a long-term project in a short-term world. You can only learn an instrument by doing and it takes time. It is a great example of organic growth for a student and flexing that organic learning muscle is really important.”

The CAPP plan and the focus on the arts has allowed the district to put more experiences in front of students and spark a passion for what is out there. There are instruments available for rent or for free with strong partnerships to take away barriers for students if they want to participate. The plan really allows the district’s talented team of specialists to work together and collaborate to work towards long-term goals. 

“Districtwide, teachers really care for kids,” said Kosloski. “Our goal is to work together to make students excited about participating in arts and music activities that are important to them throughout their time in our schools.”

Teaching the art of creating something from nothing

For Sara Merkel, art specialist at Hidden Valley Elementary, collaboration has meant working more with teachers at other schools to build a common system for talking about and teaching concepts in the arts and allowing for unique experiences for students. 

student painting a ceramic piece of artwork

“Our job at elementary school is to make sure that kids feel equipped to make decisions about what they are interested in and that they know how to express themselves in ways that are healthy,” said Merkel. “It’s all about providing opportunity and seeing where the kids take it after that. It is an honor to be trusted to make something that will be good for our students.”

Students are having positive experiences as more arts programming is being unveiled. Field trips, performances in the schools by artists in residence, additional art projects, musical instrument exploration, and the ability to connect with other students over arts have all been impactful for students. More than just a creative expression, the arts are an important part of the overall education of a student as a whole person. 

“The core of us as humans is the ability to make stuff from nothing,” added Merkel. “The arts are a great experience for students to see exactly what that is like."

Opportunities to sharpen skills and let them shine

At Burnsville High School, there are many opportunities for students to get involved in the arts both in and outside of the classroom to work together to create something truly amazing. The Arts, Global Communications & Information Systems Pathway offers visual and performing arts classes, including music with band, choir, orchestra, and even instrument-specific classes like guitar and piano, art with classes covering a variety of techniques from ceramics and photography to visual media and design. 

four students performing in a high school play

For those students interested in performing, producing or creating, there are classes on acting, fashion design and dance, all skills that can be used in the theater. Erika Sasseville is the theater director at BHS and works with students to put on four productions a year, as well as collaborating with Community Education on a summer production. 

“The theater is a place where anyone can find a place,” said Sasseville. “Any skill that you have, you can use it in theater and our goal is really to give confidence to everyone involved whether they are onstage, backstage or in the pit.”

She has seen students connect with the process and go on to pursue careers and education in acting, set design and construction, costume design and others. 

As the district continues to expand the Pathways program and work toward the goals of the CAPP plan, arts programming will continue to be an essential component of a comprehensive educational experience in District 191. Students will grow skills in all aspects of the arts throughout their time in school, finding new ways to express themselves and explore career options along the way. 

“In theater, you learn a lot of empathy by getting into other people’s shoes and it’s just a wonderful team builder,” said Sasseville. “Arts in general opens your mind and allows you to create something from nothing. We work as a team where every role is vital.”