$740K federal grant to fund arts education professional development for 4 school districts

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NORTH ADAMS — In an era of cuts to education budgets, Berkshire County is getting a boost for a sector that tends to get cut the most — the arts.

On Thursday afternoon, about 30 stakeholders gathered to celebrate the announcement of the city earning an award earmarked at nearly $740,000, delivered over the next four years, from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement. It will help provide professional development for four school districts in which 50 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds: North Adams, Adams-Cheshire Regional, Pittsfield, and Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public.

Nationally, the program approved nearly $7 million in new grants for its Professional Development for Arts Educators program, and out of the 70 applications reviewed, the education department funded 20 proposals representing work across 14 states. This is the first award for a Massachusetts program, at least since 2009.

The grant, which includes the approval of $144,245 for the Berkshires in this first year of its cycle, incentivizes the development of school-community partnerships to help train teachers to deliver high-quality instruction in the areas of music, dance, drama, media arts and visual arts, including folk arts, in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Initial partners will include arts companies that already work with Berkshire County schools and teachers, including Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Museum, Berkshire Theatre Group, Clark Art Institute, Jacob's Pillow and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, among others.

"To really become productive and inclusive participants in society, we need the arts," said Barbara Malkas, superintendent for the North Adams Public Schools.

Last year, she and North Adams Mayor Richard "Dick" Alcombright co-authored a narrative titled "Every Student Succeeds with Art," in response to the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act including arts instruction in its definition of a well-rounded education.

Alcombright said he believes that arts can offer long-term academic and social benefits for the region's children, and said this new network will have a twofold responsibility: first, to lay the groundwork of writing good curriculum and metrics for evaluating their work, and second, to help figure out a way to provide sustainable funding for arts opportunities for children.

"If they come with with the ideas that are so good, so possible ... I'm convinced that we can find a way to fund or make things happen," he said. "But it's about what we make our priorities."

The city's school district, along with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Arts Management Program and the countywide Berkshire Compact education think tank, will lead this endeavor that's being called the Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network project, or more colloquially, BRAINWorks.

"When smart, creative people get together, they generate really great ideas," said MCLA President James "Jaimie" Birge.

The MCLA campus will likely serve as a home for summer institutes, beginning in summer 2018, that will offer professional development programming for 30 to 40 local arts and nonarts teachers. Grant funding will be used to run these programs, which include paying staff and offering a stipend and professional development credits for participating educators, according to Lisa Donovan, an MCLA Fine & Performing Arts Department professor who has been working on regional and national arts education initiatives for the past 15 years.

The county already has a professional learning community of arts educators and has surveyed the region's arts assets and resources, which will soon be published with support from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. Donovan called the greenlighting of this project "a real moment in time," that validates the existing work of connecting the arts across disciplines in the Berkshires because of the research that backs successful outcomes in student achievement and engagement.

"All of these synergies are happening, and this grant is the icing on the cake," she said.

Berkshire Compact leader Howard "Jake" Eberwein III credited Donovan for co-authoring the winning grant proposal with North Adams Public Schools' Kimberly Roberts-Morandi and MCLA's Lynette Bond.

Eberwein said the project highlights three key areas for success: how the project will connect artists, educators and administrators; how it "advances the Berkshire brand" in being a rich region for arts and cultural connections; and how it will give students confidence and interest in participating in the region's creative economy by giving them skills and "opening their eyes to the rich existence and open abundance of creative opportunities in their backyard."


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