By training, State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O’Donnell is a math teacher.
His arts education, he said, was limited to seventh-grade when he played the trumpet and mastered the “Star Wars” theme.
But O’Donnell said he wants to learn more about the arts and music, to help better lead a school district.
On Tuesday the district teamed up with Penn State to spread awareness about the importance of the arts in education, and hold a public conversation on the topic at the Schlow Centre Region Library.
“We want to know how this affects a young person both academically and creatively,” O’Donnell said before the seminar. “We’re so focused on standardized testing that we don’t want to forget the importance of music and art education to succeed, and delve into the ability to think creatively and collaboratively.”
The discussion included O’Donnell; Danielle Crowe, district art curriculum coordinator; Bob Drafall, district music curriculum coordinator; Graeme Sullivan, director of the Penn State School of Visual Arts; Darrin Thornton from the Penn State School of Music; and about a dozen community members.
District art teacher Candace Smith said the arts force students to take risks, even if that means failing.
Minka Devereaux, a retired teacher who lives in State College, said it was only after her retirement in 2006 that she began to understand the importance of art and music in peoples lives.
She said, “to kill time,” she picked up an old guitar she found during her move to the Centre Region from Connecticut about five years ago, and began to play.
“What I found was an ability to be creative even if I had no idea what I was doing,” Devereaux said. “I think this is important for students as well. … Not everyone tests well, but they can excel in the arts, and that makes them no less of a great contributor to society than anyone else.”
Her point of attending the public conversation was to hear an expert’s analysis of the arts in education.
“I felt most alive when I was creating something,” Crowe said.
As an educator she hopes to help students tap into that same inspiration she had.
Thornton said that unless students are taught, then they may never understand that — for example — the music they play outside of school is connected to the kind they learn in the classroom.
“We want them to find something they relate to and let them do it,” he said.
And Sullivan picked apart how the human brain works by being creative.
“It helps people focus and tap into things that feel right,” he said. “And then they can capitalize on that.”
By doing so, Sullivan said it will give the student a better understanding of why they are learning something.
School administration will debrief by the end of the year and decide where to go with music and arts programming in the district, and have another follow-up conversation on “creating innovations,” O’Donnell said.
Drafall said that in a time where music and the arts have generally been cut at school districts, State College has been the exception, by adding a part-time music teacher for the Delta Program.
“It’s rewarding to be in a district that sees the importance of these studies,” Drafall said.