A parent of a pre-k special needs student contacted me last year. She had taken a workshop led by one of our artists and really enjoyed it; she felt it could help her child learn to find her own creative voice, and feel successful at school. Her daughter, Cristina, attended classes at two pre-k centers that hosted visiting artists in the classroom. However, because she was special-needs designated, she missed both opportunities. How? At the first site, Cristina was pulled out of one class for one-on-one instruction time during the artists’ visit. At the second site, she was placed in a stand-alone class for special needs students. Unlike the other classes at her school, this class did not host a visiting artist.
For students with special needs, access to arts learning opportunities are often few and far between. Yet, special needs-designated students are often the most likely to benefit from arts learning. There is a lot of talk in the education world about “access and equity.” In San Francisco, the school district is striving to close the achievement gap between its African American and Latino students on one end and white, Asian and Asian American students on the other. Many in the field of arts education have made the case that the arts can help bridge that gap, by engaging students in learning that is most meaningful to them; by helping some students find a place of achievement and acceptance in school that otherwise was not available to them. This is particularly true for students with special needs.
Special education teachers who have hosted a visiting artist reflected last year that the experience had an incredible effect on their students and on their school as a whole. Their students, as well as the general education students, hosted an artist for a year-long (once per week) theatre residency. As a result of the program, students who normally avoided opportunities to interact with general education students gained a new confidence. They asked to be “mainstreamed” with other students for part of the day. General education teachers who had previously been resistant to accepting mainstreamed special needs students in their classrooms became more accepting. Why? Because they had seen the special needs students perform the same theatre scenes, games and improvisations as their general education students.
If you are the parent of a special needs student, ask your child’s school about arts programming available to your child’s classroom. Demand access and equity to arts education for your child. Just as certain schools are more likely to have arts programs, certain students are more likely to have access to those programs. Parents can be huge advocates for changing this reality.