From handmade paintings that hang on the fridge to Broadway-style musicals, area school districts recognize the arts serve as outlets for expression and creativity.

While courses in English and history are important, the arts also play a significant role in the education of young people. Schools acknowledge this concept and have taken the initiative to enhance their districts' art programs.

“STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. The end results are students who take thoughtful risks, engage in experiential learning, persist in problem-solving, embrace collaboration, and work through the creative process,” according Education Closet, a STEAM digital website.

The movement to this from the previous STEM - sans the arts - has been taking root over the past several years and is surging forward as a positive mode of action that meets the needs of a 21st Century economy.

'There is no right, no wrong'

STEM alone, officials believe, misses several key components that many employers, educators and parents have voiced as critical for our children to thrive in the future. They believe the arts play an essential role in education, and ultimately allow students self expression, and the freedom to create the unknown.

“Using your artist side of the brain is often a release that just lets you explore ideas that are not limited by constraints and there is no right or wrong,” Rocco Manno, a Warwick Valley High School art teacher, said. “You learn to not be afraid to show your imagination or creative expression, as well as problem solving, and critical thinking skills.”

John Boronow, K-12 supervisor of music, art and family and consumer science West Milford Township Public Schools, agrees that the arts teach many things, such as self-esteem, teamwork, creativity and tenacity.

“The arts see the world as a whole, and not just data and specs,” Boronow said. “It enables students to make connections, to one another, to their community, their school, their art. It teaches creativity, teamwork, perseverance, reward, vision, and overcoming fear of failure.”

Christine O'Brien-Mase, the art and photography teacher at Sparta High School, also agrees.

“There are a multitude of reasons why it is important for students to be involved in the arts,” she explained. “On a high school level, learning and producing artwork helps students in developing autonomous decision making in their work, building confidence to trust themselves, and preserving their ideas from their imagination to their medium, which assists in learning how to provide constructive feedback and how to digest feedback. However, I feel the most important attribute is learning how to be creative, an element most struggle with and a major factor in getting current jobs today, even if not in art.”

Creativity and trust

Creativity is the hardest to learn because students have to build trust in revealing their ideas.

“For students, to be able to think in a different way, whether it's thinking outside the box, thinking creatively, or thinking in the spirit of innovation, is very valuable because so much of our curriculum is trying to get students to a predetermined end, and the arts has not predetermined what that end will be,” said Joe Piccirillo, the director of special products for the Vernon School District and supervisor of the K-12 art departments. “It's left up to students to determine the end, which is scary, but empowering, because it can test the limits of what they are able to do and challenges them in ways that academics don't.” Manno also believes that the arts allow students to express themselves in a way other academics cannot.

“As we get older we lose the ability to use our imagination like we did when we were kids,” he said. “Art forces you to find it again.”

Marie Kriner, an art teacher at Chester Academy, has personally seen the arts force students to struggle, and find success in that struggle.

“It's something that will help them the rest of their lives no matter which path they choose,” she said. “I have seen the arts transform student confidence and belief in themselves. The arts are the foundation to a student's educational 'house' that supports, enhances and enriches a student's overall educational experience, giving them the power to express themselves through a universal language, and the confidence to create something beautiful.”

Engaging in the arts also provides many opportunities for students, such as self-awareness.

“Participating in the arts develops motor skills, along with decision and problem solving skills,” said Jason McElroy, the K-12 district art coordinator for Monroe-Woodbury School District. “On top of all of this, studies show there is a direct correlation between art and academic achievement.”

Natural problem-solvers

According to studies, statistics show this is one of the many benefits associated with the arts.

“A school and community that support the arts statistically show an increase in overall student achievement—the science speaks for itself—the arts create the people we need in the world,” said Kriner.

It's been proven that music students tend to do better in math, and that art students, in general, are natural problem-solvers because they know how to think outside the box.

“There is continued brain research that shows the arts are significant contributors to overall brain development—specifically, learning to play an instrument as a child,” said Boronow. “Additionally, the National Association for Music Education publishes test data each year that shows how art students consistently score better on standardized tests.”

Art represents culture and a time

Furthermore, a study done by Americans for Hearts found that students who take part in the arts demonstrate improved academic performance and have lower dropout rates.

“The arts is a cross-curricular subject area,” said Picccirillo. “You look at art, religion, politics, history—all the implications art has on things you would never suspect can be discussed in an art class. Art is a representation of a culture and a time period.” Art dates back to the first markings on cave paintings to shaping political campaigns.

“It is everything we have ever known,” said Kriner. “Art moves society forward while showing us the beauty and balance in the world; it crosses languages and religious beliefs to unite mankind.”

Because the actual medium of art does not discriminate, it provides a platform to record and express ideas.

“Life is art, and therefore, art becomes life,” said O'Brien-Mase. “Art, in its purist form, is an honest experience of one's voice in mind, body, and spirit.”

However, to have an outstanding art program, the common denominator is outstanding teachers, as well as a supportive district and community.

“The most important thing we have is there are two things,” explained Piccirillo. “Teachers that are passionate, hardworking, and creative, and the parents. It's a noticeable difference when you're in a community like we are with parents that are supportive of the arts and take their kids to concerts and museums, and speak about and value art in their homes.”

“Dedicated teachers who never look at a clock, after school clubs, local competitions, and frequent artwork showcases,”added Christopher Tucci, the unified arts department head in the Goshen School District, are imperative components to programs. Kriner agrees that despite setbacks due to class size, material inadequacies, or space, a great teacher can inspire a student to feel confident and creative, and have a thriving arts program.

Boronow as well feels that teachers with vision, imagination, and the ability to inspire students to try and do things they may have otherwise thought unimaginable.

“As well as administration and community pride are key to a successful program,” he added.

Art breeds difference

Due to this overwhelming support, most districts are fortunate enough to have not experienced any cuts due to budgetary restraints, because positive administrations bolster the value of art.

“If anything we continue to grow as the school grows,” Kriner said.

However, one of the biggest obstacles these programs face is being pigeon-holed into preconceived misconceptions of the arts. “We shouldn't be judging the success of our programs by how many choose to major in these areas—that doesn't constitute success,” said Piccirillo. “I think students are successful everyday by increasing the morale of building, and contributing to the district and community.”

It's important for students to be involved in the arts because of the technical world they live in, where everyone is on a laptop of cell phone, Tucci believes.

“There should be many outlets where one gets to create something with their own hands,” he said. “They can think for themselves, they can work in groups on a common goal, and appreciate beauty in an often ugly world.”

Furthermore, without art, everyone is the same.

“Art breeds difference, change, creativity,” said Manno. “Without it we would all look and dress the same, drive the same car, and lead boring drab lives. The idea that we would be limited to one way of thinking—that everyone is the same, is sad. The arts create freedom, and what's not fun about being creative?”

Art can also be a social agent for change, as well as a source for self-esteem.

“Art reflects us,” said Boronow. “It reflects what we hold as important and valuable.”

The arts play a huge role in the development of the whole child as well, since kids live in a visual society and it is imperative for young adults to learn how to navigate it.

“Art is important because without it the earth is 'eh,'” said McElroy. “I didn't make that up, but it's so true, is it not?”

Being involved in the arts gives students tenacity, grit, and a sense of being able to think in a creative way.

“Why is art important?” said Tucci. “Without it, we are not all that we could be.”