Art changes young lives forever

The idea for the Cultural Experience Project was born out of a trip to a museum with my teen-age daughter and her boyfriend.

One afternoon I asked my daughter, a recent APS high school graduate, to have her boyfriend, also a recent graduate, meet us at the Woodruff Arts Center to take in a current exhibition at the High Museum.

His response: That he’d never been there, didn’t know what it was or where it was. It was an “aha” moment for me.

I know arts and culture can have a meaningful impact on people’s lives in encouraging discovery, inspiring creative and intellectual stimulation and building cultural bridges. The simple act of allowing students to expand their educational experience through a cultural field trip can have lasting effects; the Cultural Experience Project provides that opportunity for all students in Atlanta Public Schools.

It’s my belief that the sooner a person is introduced to the arts, the deeper the connection and benefit. Exposure to the arts has real-world applications. They make our youth more competitive and creative as businesses look for innovators and problem-solvers in tomorrow’s workforce.

Here are a few facts from studies done by The National Endowment for the Arts and the RAND Corporation:

—Eighth-graders who had high levels of arts engagement from kindergarten through elementary school showed higher test scores in science and writing than did students who had lower levels of arts engagement over the same period.

—Middle and high school students who had high levels of arts engagement were more likely to aspire to college.

—Socially and economically disadvantaged children and teen-agers who have high levels of arts engagement tend to do better on a host of academic and civic behavioral measures than do at-risk youth who lack arts backgrounds.

—At-risk teenagers or young adults with a history of intensive arts experiences show achievement levels closer to, and in some cases exceeding, levels shown by the general population.

Every student deserves to experience our city’s premier arts institutions. My office took the lead in creating a cultural field trip program. To make it work, we had to recruit cultural and philanthropic partners to provide free admission and transportation to the schools or students.

Teaching materials are created to enhance the field trip experience and connect to work done in the classroom.

The Cultural Experience Project starts its 10th year this September. The program provides every APS student with a visit to one cultural venue every school year. To date, the program has provided more than 300,000 admissions to plays, concerts, dance performances and museum trips. We have created a model that works due to collaboration with Atlanta political, business and community leaders, and with the support of our city’s cultural venues.

Our hope is that other cities will be inspired and start a Cultural Experience Project of their own. The rewards are many, as we see how the arts change the lives of students. Many gain confidence, excel in their schoolwork and create brighter dreams for their futures.

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Camille Russell Love is the executive director of the city of Atlanta mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.