Transcript – Episode 31


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Marinell Rousmaniere: Schools that had more arts had interest from parents, they saw an impact around climate, around engagement and around family involvement. And to be able to lift up those stories and have a leader in the district say that arts education is important really changed the tenor of the conversation for all schools and all students in Boston.

Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachussetts Cultural Council. And welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Marinell Rousmaniere. She is the Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives with Edvestors. And welcome to the program.

Marinell Rousmaniere: Thank you, Anita.

Anita Walker: And for those who have not heard, we know the EdVestors so well here in our arts funding world and certainly in greater Boston, but in case we have a few listeners, who aren’t familiar with your organization, tell us just a little bit about what you do.

Marinell Rousmaniere: Sure. Well, EdVestors is actually not an arts organization interestingly enough. EdVestors is a 15-year-old school improvement organization that really started as an enterprise to provide funds to urban public schools to really connect investors who were interested in investing in regular public schools in the city and find promising ideas that are happening in those schools and make those investments. And over time in our earliest years, we saw that a quarter of our resources were going to arts education. And it was really that realization and hearing from teachers and principals and parents that there was a real desire for quality arts education that led us to invest a lot of our time as an organization in arts education over the last few years.

Anita Walker: So, be honest. Did that surprise you to see so much interest and so much success when we put the arts in the schools?

Marinell Rousmaniere: No. It really didn’t surprise us. <laugh>

Anita Walker: Well, it doesn’t surprise us either. But were some people surprised? It wasn’t the original intent.

Marinell Rousmaniere: I think some people were surprised that the level of pent up interest that existed in schools. What we saw in our earliest days when we started the work in arts education in 2009 was what we call random inequity. It was not based on income of students or neighborhood that the schools were located in, but in decisions that were made by adults in those building. Because in Boston, schools have a lot of control over their budgets, especially around specialists that they’re able to hire. So, some schools in our most in need neighborhoods had five art teachers, lots of partners, many activities going on, while the school down the street with the same population of students had nothing. And it was really those decisions made by adults. We saw schools that had more arts had interest from parents, they saw an impact around climate, around engagement and around family involvement. And to be able to lift up those stories and have a leader in the district say that arts education is important really changed the tenor of the conversation for all schools and all students in Boston.

Anita Walker: You have a little accidental control group there. Just the way there —

Marinell Rousmaniere: Some had and some did not.

Anita Walker: I mean you had a point of comparison.

Marinell Rousmaniere: Correct. Correct.

Anita Walker: And did that really help underscore the power of arts in the schools?

Marinell Rousmaniere: Well, I think the critical piece was looking at data. So, early on in our effort, which we call BPS Arts Expansion, people would tell you there were tumbleweeds in the hallways, that there was nothing happening in schools. But our critical first step was really collecting data around what was actually happening, not the number of teachers or the number of partners, but what were students actually receiving in terms of arts education. And that was the place that really gave us that sense of where were the schools where 100 percent of their students had access to weekly arts instruction? Where were there schools where there was nothing happening? And then providing that data in a transparent way and having each school take notice of each other and the district and partners including funding partners see what was really happening was a key piece to that comparison to really motivate people to make different decisions.

Anita Walker: To drill down a little bit, when you talk about arts in the school, what do you mean? Do you mean a class in playing the violin or do you mean a math teacher incorporates the arts learning math?

Marinell Rousmaniere: I think we learn — we mean all of the above. And one of the advantages of being an education organization rather than an arts organization is we are neutral as to what the art looks like. And when we say arts, we mean visual art, which is sometimes drawing and painting, which is the first thing that comes to people’s minds, but also dance, theater, media arts, music, instrumental, vocal music, and arts integration as you described. The math teacher doing that work as well as your stand-alone violin teacher who comes into the school on a weekly basis. So, we saw all of those as arts that are valued and just about making sure that each of those options are of quality and students have access to them regardless of where they go to school on a regular basis, so they can develop some knowledge of the degree to which they enjoy the arts, what they — what art form they like, so that they can make choices about their pursuit as they get older.

Anita Walker: So, you said the first thing you did was collect data, find out what’s going on, measure what’s happening in the schools in the city of Boston. And then based on that analysis, did you sort of prescribed arts in places where there wasn’t any or did you look at, well, there’s arts here, but it could be done better? How did you approach sort of what the best practices around arts in the schools looks like?

Marinell Rousmaniere: It’s a great question. Our first desire was really to have a baseline of what all students would be receiving. And so, when we looked at the data, we saw that about two-thirds of students in elementary and middle grade were receiving weekly year-long instruction. In the high school level, only about a  quarter had access to any art at all during the school day over a course of the year. So, we really set a first achievable but —

Anita Walker: Ambitious.

Marinell Rousmaniere: Ambitious and achievable goal so that every student in the city would have access to weekly year-long instruction. And one of our key tools along with the data was an incentive grand making pool that some of our local funders here came together to put together. And that allowed us to fund in places that were low arts some experiments, some partnerships with creative youth development organizations so that those schools could experience what arts education had to offer in those buildings. And it was really through those initial incentive grants and those ways of bringing partners into the building that we saw appetites change on the part of those schools so that we now have 94 percent of students in the city receiving weekly year-long instruction at the elementary and middle grades. And now two-thirds of high school students have access to any art during the school year.

Anita Walker: So, something tells me when you first set that ambitious goal, there might have been a few people who said, “Well, that’s never going to happen.” And one of the things we hear so much is “There’s just no time. There’s so many requirements that teachers — they have to do all this accountability and the high stakes testing and there’s just no more room in the school day to shoehorn anything else in.” How in the world were you managing to shoehorn arts into these classrooms that didn’t have any?

Marinell Rousmaniere: I think that’s a narrative we heard, but it’s actually one that didn’t turn out to be very true. And I think part of that is we have done the literacy until you can’t read anymore and math all day long. And what schools saw over the first period of that accountability approach was that they weren’t making the kinds of improvements that they wanted to make. And so, they took a quick look at that and said, “How do we engage students better? How do we make sure the climate of this building is the right one?” A student can’t learn math, if they don’t come to school, right? So, finding 45 minutes a week as a starting point for students to have access to those kinds of experiences didn’t turn out — on the school’s part, it was those were really school decisions to be as big of a jump. They have teachers who need to have common planning time. They need to have specialists in the building. So, how do you direct those specialists toward something that can really be of value to your broader mission of the school?

Anita Walker: So, so far, with the enormous progress that you’ve made, what have you learned out of the experience here in Boston and what can others take away from it?

Marinell Rousmaniere: We’ve learned a tremendous amount about first bringing people together to ask them what they need and then work together to create a plan. So, the BPSR’s expansion initiative had a broad stakeholder process to say, “What do we need in arts education? What’s going to help you do it better as a school, as a partner? Is it teacher? What do families want? What do students desire?” And that has been a key success factor. Really hear the voices of your community. As I said, data is a key success factor and understanding what students are actually getting, communicating with the community about what we want and then setting a goal to move it forward. We’ve had the fortune of having in Boston some philanthropic dollars, but lots of communities have money that parents or local businesses are putting into the arts. And so thinking about how to do that strategically is another lesson. And also, quantifying how much money districts are already spending in the arts. I think that often that’s an overlooked number. But a district with seven or ten schools and an art teacher in each school, that adds up. And so, that helps to place some value on it on the part of the district and then put that together with the money that their external funders, whether they’re parents or small businesses are putting in, can really help the sum be greater than its parts.

Anita Walker: How important was it to have enthusiastic buy-in from the top of the district?

Marinell Rousmaniere: It was important. I won’t undermine that. We were fortunate in 2008 when this initiative first bubbled up, it really was as a result of having a new superintendent at that time, Carol Johnson, who came to town, who sang at her first public meeting and said that she valued arts education as part of an excellent education. And so, that allowed the doors to open for all the people who felt sidelined for a long time in terms of their value of arts education not being top of the list by leadership. I think that value, what we’ve seen, though, in Boston for people who know, we’ve had a number of transitions in that superintendency since then and transition in our mayor’s office. And by putting the voices of the schools themselves, the students, the families, and the key partners in the community forward, other people have continued to embrace that vision. And I think it can start with a leader who says, “I really believe this.” But you can also bring those factions together to convince a leader that it’s really important.

Anita Walker: How important are philanthropic dollars to getting the level of quality arts instruction and arts engagement in our schools. Not every community in Massachusetts is Boston with large foundations or corporate headquarters to tap into to sort of augment the existing school budget. How important is that and can what happened to Boston happen in a community that doesn’t have that sort of philanthropic base?

Marinell Rousmaniere: I believe it can happen. It’s been important here, but it’s really been more important as an incentive and to provide some early wins for schools. So, I’ll tell you that over the course of the last eight years since this initiative launched, there has been a $11 million a year increase on part of the school district in arts education. So, that is driven by an additional 130 teachers that the 125 schools have hired over that course of the period. That’s public dollars, decisions made by the public system, and the people in those buildings. And so, the little bit of philanthropy, which is more than a six to one return has really been an incentive to that work and helped to grease the wheels and bring people to the table that might not have been there originally. But once they saw what was possible and then had some support around making some different decisions and looking at their budgets, they really did that work. So, I think philanthropy was important in moving things faster and in helping to really prime the pump, but it wasn’t really the key solution. It really was the public dollars. And I do think that’s possible in other places.

Anita Walker: So, when we started talking, you said EdVestors is not an arts organization, it’s a school improvement organization. So, now that you’ve come through this experience here in Boston, do you believe that arts in education is a key strategy for success?

Marinell Rousmaniere: We do believe it’s a key strategy for success for the reasons that students need to be engaged. The climate of the building needs to be a positive place, and families need to be involved. And over and over again, we hear anecdotal stories, we see in the data schools that put the arts class first period have higher attendance rates. We hear from principals that that they could have a math night every night of the week and never have as many parents show up in their building as when their students and young people are on stage. So, while it’s not necessarily going to be the key to helping them compute and read better, it’s going to provide the conditions to make those things possible.

Anita Walker: Marinell Rousmanier, the Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at EdVestors and one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Marinell Rousmaniere: Thank you, Anita.

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