KC Young Audiences juggling content to keep arts in schools

It took a cloak of square roots, triangular numbers and multiplication facts, but Jay and Leslie got in.

They infiltrated Blue Valley’s Timber Creek Elementary School.

And the squeals of laughter from a gym full of second-graders proved their ruse worked.

After all, the husband-and-wife team of Jay Cady and Leslie Seifert-Cady are performers. Theater professionals. They love art for art’s sake.

They are just two people in a regional arsenal of artists and arts supporters fulfilling the purpose of Kansas City Young Audiences, which is celebrating its 50th year of promoting the arts.

But these days, when schools think they have less time and money to spend outside of reading and numbers, the arts struggle with a new kind of creativity just to get in the classroom doors.

At Timber Creek, while Jay and Leslie had fun with the math curriculum for teachers’ sake, they poured out their joy of stage characters and juggling acts.

Eight-year-old second-grader Brianna Duty got it.

“I think it was more of a comedy show than a math show,” she said, clearly a fan.

Her question for Jay and Leslie: “Are you guys always this crazy?”

The truth is artists go to greater and greater lengths to keep their missions alive.

Musicians mark the mathematical meters of their scores.

Theater groups teach civics lessons.

Painters dabble in geometry.

Dancers spin the science of weather patterns.

“We live at the intersection of arts and education,” Seifert-Cady said. “And both of those are being cut.”

For Kansas City Young Audiences, that means seeing more urgency in its work at a time when it is feeling the same economic crunch.

School boards invariably will speak to the value of the arts, said Martin English, Kansas City Young Audiences’ executive director.

“But when they are looking to cut, art is near the top of the list,” he said. “It makes our work more important.”

To that end, the organization catalogs the arts venues that host student programs or go into schools, charting both the Kansas and Missouri learning standards each one covers.

The organization provides training to artists to help them build curriculum into their presentations.

“A lot of schools won’t carve out (time or money) unless we can show academic content,” English said.

Most schools still book programs, he said, but fewer of them.

Foundations still support arts, but the pies are smaller.

Kansas in particular took a hit when the state eliminated funding to the Kansas Arts Commission. The situation worsened because the National Endowment for the Arts determined it could not allot funds to Kansas without going through the commission.

Many grant opportunities disappeared.

In some cases, school boards make cuts in the arts with the hope that those programs will have a better chance of attracting their own support from the outside.

The Raytown School District cut funds from its operating budget that had supported Kansas City Young Audiences and its Arts Partners program, then scrambled to make it up.

“It’s sad, because we value art as part of the education of the whole child,” said Raytown Associate Superintendent Janie Pyle.

The cuts were some of the difficult decisions made by an administration and board that gave themselves the “responsibility of not affecting classroom instruction,” she said.

To keep Arts Partners programming alive, the district’s education foundation committed $7,000 and found a matching donor.

Pyle, who was an operatic voice performance major in college, knows the critical role arts play in keeping many students connected to school.

“We don’t want that to go by the wayside,” she said.

For too many children, especially when families have little extra income, school programs provide their only experiences with symphonic musicians, opera singers, ballet dancers, fine artists and actors.

“You have to build cultural capital,” said Jean Ney, who coordinates fine arts for the Kansas City, Kan., School District.

That’s how students “know” the arts in their own minds when they read about them, Ney said. They see targets for their own creativity.

“In dealing with the human brain, it likes to make meaning of what it does,” Ney said. “But it also likes to create. The brain is compelled to create.”

The district has sustained its programming through Kansas City Young Audiences for that reason, she said.

At Timber Creek Elementary, the school is able to generate $4,000 through the fundraising of its PTA to support extra arts programming, Principal Pamela Bakke said.

The Jay and Leslie show, very much aware of this, urged their child audience in their post-show chat to “support those PTA fundraisers!”

That’s the way it goes — with the arts begging support like Salvation Army bell ringers — even though few disagree with English when he cites research that students in the arts are more likely to do better in school.

No one would dispute his assertion that “CEOs at Google are looking for creative problem solvers.”

Arts indeed inspire “innovation.”

But just in case, note that another one of Jay and Leslie’s performances, “Juggling the Earth’s Resources,” will cover atoms, molecules, the water cycle, the greenhouse effect and recycling.