It’s been eleven years since Sally Volar graduated from the Perpich Center for Arts Education (PCAE), but she says that her life would be totally different if she hadn’t gone there. For her day job, Sally works with homeless and urban youth as a social worker, but she also plays violin with various world bands around the Twin Cities, and explores the art of photography. Much like the curriculum of the Perpich Center, which teaches not only technical art classes, but arts-integrated curriculum, Volar infuses art in everything she does, whether through her work with youth, or pursuing her music, or simply living her life in a creative and artistic way.
The 24-year-old Perpich Center is more than an arts high school — it’s a state agency whose primary purpose, set by Minnesota law, is to “provide assistance in arts education to school districts, including professional development, funding and educational programs around the state.”
This year, Governor Tim Pawlenty’s budget recommends that the outreach functions of PCAE end by 2011, and the school will be turned into a charter school. Under the governor’s plan, the teacher training, curriculum development, and outreach that PCAE currently provides would end, and state funding for students would decrease dramatically.
Cutting the outreach programs would end all of the teacher training that PCAE currently provides to schools across the state. Laura Grant, the arts coordinator for the Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, a K-8 Minneapolis public school, just completed her second year of training at PCAE along with three other teachers from Ramsey. The program, called Arts Courses for Educators (ACE), trains several teams of teachers from all over the state. Grant said the program involved both teaching art and using art to teach other core subject areas. For example, teachers learn to use movement to teach math, literacy, or science.
“The three teachers said [the Perpich training] had really helped them in their classrooms because it took them out of their comfort zones,” said Grant. She said the teachers gained tools to reach kinesthetic learners, and students who fall through cracks. “The teachers all say the program helped them gain confidence,” Grant said. The program also seemed to create results: After a sixth grade math teacher used arts integration techniques to teach a unit on positive and negative numbers, test scores jumped from the previous year.
“Over all it’s been a really good thing,” said Grant of the PCAE program. “I don’t know what we’re going to do next year when we’re not in the program.”
House Representative Mindy Greiling, chair of the K-12 Finance Division, said she wasn’t in favor of cutting PCAE’s outreach programs. “We want it to be equitable”, Greiling said in a telephone interview, and emphasized that she wanted the state to provide access to arts education to all Minnesota students, no matter what school district they live in.
Greiling also said that turning PCAE into a charter school doesn’t necessarily save money, and there would be issues to be worked out since charter schools aren’t allowed to own their own property. “I don’t think he’s thought out his proposal,” said Greiling of the governor.
Greiling also said the Pawlenty doesn’t mention the student housing at the Perpich Center. Currently, there are dorms for students from greater Minnesota to live in while they attend school. The Perpich Center subsidizes some of the student housing.
Tonja Torgerson, a local printmaker who graduated from PCAE in 2003, grew up on the White Earth Indian Reservation. As her parents lived 240 miles from the school, living in the dorms was her only way to attend. They found a way to pay $1000 for her board, which was not easy for them. But Torgerson said that the experience was invaluable. “I learned how to do my trade at Perpich,” Torgerson said. Now a professional artist, Torgerson keeps active in advocating for PCAE through her blog, where she writes:
Going to Perpich was a huge opportunity for me and many other rural students. Unlike the metropolitan area that has many options within commuting distance (including schools that have adequate art departments) my rural background did not allow for in depth arts education. My only real option for additional training arts training while in high school was Perpich.
Nathan Davis, executive director of PCAE, said that about 30 percent of students receive subsidized room and board, which currently costs $3,3000.
State Representative Mindy Greiling is not sure that having only one arts high school with dorms is the right answer. “I think we need to look at other models”, said Greiling. She said that because the Perpich Center is an application-based school, not every student who wants to attend an arts high school has the opportunity to go there. Other arts charter schools don’t have housing, so there are limited options for students from rural areas who want to attend an arts high school if they don’t get in to PCAE. “It’s not equitable,” she said, of the current model, but she said cutting the outreach programs is not the solution.
“I don’t know if anything will happen with it this year or not, ” Greiling said. The governor’s plan would leave funding intact for the next fiscal year (from July 2009- June 2010). Meanwhile, advocates for the Perpich Center are not taking the news lightly. Volunteers, board members, students and parents went to the capitol February 9 and lobbied their cause with government officials. Their talking points included the economic benefits of a strong arts education program in the state, the educational benefit to all students and teachers across disciplines, and closing of the achievement gap.
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.