Words My Mother Said

Arts Programming teaches students how quality arts programming is at the core of all arts and culture organizations. One assignment in the course asks students to find connections and note the contrast between an organization’s program values and the student’s personal values. Leea Reese Russell, who was enrolled in Arts Programming last semester, explored her history with public schools and the role they play in her current position as Director of Education at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge.


Written by Leea Reese Russell, Alumna, UMass Amherst Arts Extension Service

Growing up in the Deep South, the only daughter of an African American single mother, I attended private school and was an active participant in all things arts and culture. I took dance classes, performed in local community theatre productions, attended concerts, and visited galleries and museums. It was the normal life of an 80s born, 90s raised millennial and I recognize that my mother made great sacrifices to afford me the life I lived.

My mother was an employee of the local public school district, a counselor in our local version of the D.A.R.E. program. I recall being a small child and overhearing my mother talking to one of her friends. “Do you think Leea is too good for public school?” they asked. “Yes”, my mother replied, “and so is every other child in the city”. At the time, those words made me uncomfortable and still do to this day.

I was brought up believing that public schools were subpar and that in order for me to receive a well-rounded education in a safe environment, I needed to be in private school. Once I graduated and started teaching in the public school system, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my mother was wrong, or so I thought. I was teaching at a visual and performing arts magnet school with a plethora of resources, supportive parents, and an upstanding reputation in the community. This was not the picture I had in my head of public school and it made me hopeful for the future of our community. After 10 years of teaching, I took a position working at the Arts Council and began visiting and programming for schools throughout the district. I discovered that the majority of the schools in the district were those my mother said that we children were “too good for”.


"When we take away the Arts, we rob students of opportunities to take risks in a safe environment, collaborate, empathize, and problem solve. We rob them of differentiated learning."


The reality of Louisiana’s public schools is that most are failing. Facilities are poor, classroom resources are minimal, and in some cases, the faculty and staff are untrained and ill-equipped to effectively educate and nurture the students. Data extracted from the 2018-2019 school year shows that 44% of Louisiana's K-12 schools are failing. These failing schools are serving primarily black and brown students from low income, under-resourced families. Nearly all of these schools have inadequate arts education opportunities. When we take away the Arts, we rob students of opportunities to take risks in a safe environment, collaborate, empathize, and problem solve. We rob them of differentiated learning.

This is not a new issue. This is not an issue unique to the south. There is numerous research around Arts-in-Education and its role in the advancement of student engagement, academic achievement, and non-cognitive skills. A study in Maryland showed a 20% increase in standardized test scores and a 77% decrease in discipline referrals over a four-year period where students were engaged in arts integrated learning. These particular students were from low-socio-economic homes. With the data so readily available, I often question the priorities of the education decision makers.


"Art is for all, not just the privileged. I look forward to the day there is a shift in the mindset of our education policy makers that allows them to make choices that prioritize the arts as a part of a well-rounded education for every child, everywhere."


When I reflect on the words my mother, I reflect on my role in changing the perception that all children are too good for our public schools. Those words guide the relationships I build within the schools, the programs I create and facilitate, the partnerships between the schools and the arts community that I have a hand in cultivating. Art is for all, not just the privileged. I look forward to the day there is a shift in the mindset of our education policy makers that allows them to make choices that prioritize the arts as a part of a well-rounded education for every child, everywhere.