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Manatee, Sarasota school districts work to boost arts programs

After arts programs saw lower involvement as a result of the pandemic, schools are boosting their offerings.

Ballet students at Booker High School in Sarasota.
Ballet students at Booker High School in Sarasota.
Courtesy photo
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While schools were closed for summer break, some halls and classrooms were filled with music. 

Manatee County students were hard at work developing their musical abilities during the School District of Manatee County's first visual and performing arts camp. 

The camp was a part of the district's plan to revitalize its visual and performing arts programs after involvement in the programs throughout the district dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During the pandemic, schools throughout Manatee and Sarasota counties had to adjust the way it taught visual and performing arts due to the districts having to accommodate the move to a remote or hybrid learning model as well as not having the resources needed to ensure students could learn and perform safely. 

Some schools had students previously sharing instruments because there weren't enough for each student, but the pandemic made sharing instruments unsafe. 

Angela Hartvigsen, a fine arts program specialist for Sarasota County Schools, said online instruction is not the best way to learn how to play an instrument. Online and even hybrid arts education does not accomplish the same results as in-person programs, she said.

Students practice guitar in music class at Booker High School in Sarasota.

Since the pandemic, the districts have been working to boost their programs and get more students involved. 

Manatee's two-week camp, with sections for band, choir, theater, orchestra and art, was attended by 331 students entering sixth grade through ninth grade. It contained two tracks — intermediate/advanced for students with previous experience and beginner for kids dipping a toe into the arts pool for the first time.

The camp’s finale was a summer showcase held at Parrish Community High School. The theater group performed “Finding Nemo Jr.” while the band, choir and orchestra sections put on recitals. An art exhibit was on display in the cafeteria.

“It was an awesome showcase,” said Jeramiah Bowman, the curriculum and instructional specialist for visual and performing arts for the School District of Manatee County. “We had kids performing after seven days of instruction. All the kids were really supportive of each other. The staff were fabulous.”

Theater students in Manatee County school district's free summer arts camp presented "Finding Nemo Jr." at Parrish Community High School.
Courtesy photo

Bowman’s hope is the students who participated in the summer arts camp will bring their excitement back to school in August. He wants beginners to continue their arts education in the upcoming school year and then come back to another free arts camp next summer.

But Bowman is a realist. He knows a couple of weeks of playing the clarinet or painting watercolors isn’t going to erase the learning gaps and emotional trauma students suffered because of school closures and remote learning.

But an arts boot camp can get students jazzed, Bowman believes, and that can carry over into learning in general and improve youth mental health. 

Part of the push for arts education in Manatee County comes from the district's expansion from Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to include arts, thanks to a voter referendum.

In March 2018, Manatee voters approved a 1-mill property tax referendum, which called for more instructional time for students, pay increases for teachers and other staff and the expansion of STEM and career and technical education programs. In November 2021, voters renewed the referendum and included funding for arts programs.

The referendum helped underwrite Manatee County’s summer arts camp as did federal Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants. It also provided funding to restore arts teaching and staff positions cut during the COVID-19 pandemic. More funding has helped provide transportation for students to see arts performances at area arts venues and at other schools.

The deterioration in a student’s vocal or musical ability isn’t measured with the same rigor at the secondary level as proficiency in math or reading. But there is no doubt that this year’s artistic performances showed marked improvement over the 2021-2022 year, according to Hartvigsen.

“Listening to music performances or looking at artwork in our spring art show, it’s clear the quality is coming back,” she said.

In Sarasota schools, teachers have brought in adjuncts to help them work with students. Young students also are being paired with older students who act as mentors to encourage their artistic progress, Hartvigsen said.

One sign of the improvement in Sarasota County's arts education, Hartvigsen said, is the number of arts instructors nominated for the 2023 Teacher of the Year award. Among 40 nominees, five taught either dance or music. 

The winner of Teacher of the Year was Tim Ferguson, a music teacher at Garden Elementary in Venice. His victory warmed the heart of Hartvigsen, the daughter of two Sarasota County music teachers.

The districts are working with community partners to be able to showcase student work and host student performances around Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Gocio Elementary School student Jailyn Panigua won "Best of the Best" at the Sarasota County Schools North County exhibit at Art Center Sarasota in May.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Sarasota County Schools collaborates with some of the area’s arts institutions including Art Center Sarasota, Venice Art Center, Sarasota Orchestra and Venice Symphony, among others. 

In May, Sarasota County students displayed their artwork in the North County K-12 Spring Art Show at Art Center Sarasota. The same month the Venice Art Center hosted the district's South County Art Show.

Both Hartvigsen and Bowman want to encourage students to get involved in the arts as early as sixth grade, which is students' first opportunity to dive into visual and performing arts programs. 

“When students get to sixth grade, they decide whether they want to pursue the arts. In music, you can pick from band or orchestra. You can have art class every day instead of once a week. It’s the entry way into what will become a seven-year experience,” Hartvigsen said.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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