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The Q&A: Jennifer Ransom Rice

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Jennifer Ransom Rice, the executive director of the Texas Cultural Trust.

Jennifer Ransom Rice is the executive director of the Texas Cultural Trust.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Jennifer Ransom Rice is the executive director of the Texas Cultural Trust, which recently launched, a website that includes data and information on access to arts education in all Texas public school districts.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Can you briefly describe what is and how it came about?

Jennifer Ransom Rice: ArtCanTexas is an interactive map where parents, teachers and Texans can click on their school district, pull down a profile on their home district and see how it measures up compared to other districts around the state. We look at three indicators: The number of certified fine arts teachers in a district, the number of fine arts courses offered and student enrollment in fine arts courses. The purpose of the website is to give Texans a snapshot of art access across our state.

This all came about after our 2015 report, which looked at the impact of art on students’ education and performance. We had some amazing data that came out of that. We found that students enrolled in more art courses scored 15 percent higher on standardized tests, they’re half as likely to drop out and they attend, on average, two additional weeks of school per year. This begs the question though: Is every student getting equal access to that kind of education and those benefits?

Trib+Edu: What were some of the results from the 2015 report?

Rice: I think it showed the impact of the arts on student education and student performance. It shows that the arts helped kids not only stay enrolled in schools, but engaged in school. Ray Benson [the musician] always talks about how the arts are the only reason he stayed in school.

He’s an example that went on to become a professional musician and Grammy-award winning artist, but there are many [students] who, for whatever reason, just can’t get into their groove in school. However, they may be in a band or in theatre, and that’s the one thing that keeps them showing up every day.

All it takes is one thing. Art can be anything from their complete passion in life to just being that hook that gets them in the door and learning everything else while they’re there.

Trib+Edu: What can people learn from that?

Rice: I think the biggest takeaway is that the arts can help every student succeed, not just the student who wants to go on and become an artist, musician or actor. The arts expand your mind, they help with creative problem solving and strategic thinking, they teach perseverance and they teach self-confidence. Students learn so many things that they’ll need in order to succeed in their careers and leadership roles.   

I say all the time that my personal story is I danced ballet for 20 years. I was never going to become a dancer — I’d like to have — but I can now stand in front of an audience and speak or command a boardroom and speak because of the self-confidence that dance gave me.

Trib+Edu: Why do you think participation in arts programs has such a profound impact on kids?

Rice: We found this in our Art and Digital Literacy curriculum. When I’ve done visits to classrooms that implemented our courses, we ask the question, “What do you like best about this class?” The resounding answer has been that students like to work alongside their classmates, and not sit passively listening to a teacher. Students like to be creative and drive the course.

I think that the collaboration, teamwork and project-based learning that the arts bring about so often is a real benefit for a lot of kids. Every other classroom you go in has kids sitting in straight lines just listening to somebody talk. This is an opportunity for them to collaborate, to talk back and to lead the discussions and projects.

I also think that kids like being a part of something. It’s so important for kids to feel like they’re part of a community. That keeps them coming back and being engaged as much as anything else.

Trib+Edu: What can Texas schools do to increase art education? 

Rice: The easy answer is to increase funding, but everyone I know is fighting for the same piece of the pie. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re in a legislative environment where no one is going to get any more pie. We would love for school districts to prioritize art education more than they do currently. A lot of school districts do, but some don’t as much.

Beyond extra funding, there’s so many great examples. Austin ISD and Houston ISD have engaged in partnerships with nonprofits. So when a school district maybe can’t afford arts education, they partner with a nonprofit organization who can bring in that programming.

The Trust would also like to promote our curriculum on Art and Digital Literacy. It’s a free course available to every Texas school and it bridges the arts and technology by teaching fine arts in a digital format. More and more schools are signing up every day, but that’s just one example that’s a free resource that we would love to see schools take advantage of.

The problem becomes scheduling. It’s always difficult to fit everything into a school day that everyone wants you to fit in. I’d like to say that the answer isn’t just money, but probably the most important answer is money.

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