“So, do you really think that you make a difference?”
Corey Baumann was at a bar one weekend when he was confronted with this question by one of his uncle’s friends. The question was an unprovoked jab at Baumann’s profession as the GED Coordinator at North Division High School in Milwaukee.
Even though he wanted to defend the school he puts so much time and effort into by talking about all of the great things happening there, Baumann chose to not add fuel to the fire, telling the man that he doesn’t talk shop on the weekend.
“I couldn’t believe that was the first thing some stranger would say to me,” Baumann says.
Unfortunately, people who don’t believe that the education system is making a difference are only a part of the problem. Teaching salaries in many places have not kept up, and teachers are caught in the middle of a raging gun-control debate about whether they should be armed in the classroom.
Further, funding for schools, especially in the arts programs, continues to decline, resulting in smaller staffs, fewer resources and fewer options for students.
Thankfully, Milwaukee’s busy music scene is always coming up with ways to give back to the community — and that includes the schools.
In fact, Milwaukee’s largest local music festival — Arte Para Todos — is a major contributor to arts’ programs in Milwaukee schools. But in this annual fundraiser, teachers aren’t just on the receiving end, they’re also performing in it.
Baumann plays drums in Future Plans, one of this year’s scheduled performers, and there are teachers in Social Caterpillar, Gauss, B~Free, Strangelander and plenty of other participating acts.
‘Art for Everyone’
From April 26 to April 29, Milwaukee musicians, venues, artists and neighborhoods will come together for Arte Para Todos (Art for Everyone), a four-day celebration of local art and music. All money raised during the festival is donated to art programs in local schools in need.
“It’s like the entire city is inundated by this spirit of musical generosity of people and musicians in town,” says Steve Peplin, the guitarist of Strangelander and a guitar instructor at MATC and Lawrence University.
The festival was conceived as an answer to the slashing of art and music programming in schools.
“We were seeing schools be put in terrible situations and given these really kind of evil ultimatums,” says Josh Evert, one of the organizers for the festival. “They were going to have to choose art programming or fire some of their staff. ‘You can have your supplies but we’re going to cut your teachers.’”
This year marks the fourth run of the festival. In its first three years, Arte Para Todos raised over $60,000, with 100 percent of that being donated to its partners’ art programs. In 2015, for instance, Tamarack Waldorf High School was able to install a blacksmithing lab, complete with metalworking classes taught by Ken Knapp of Milwaukee Blacksmith. This year’s partners include Albert E. Kagel Elementary School, Doerfler Elementary School, South Division High School and Express Yourself MKE.
Over 70 bands are participating. Some musicians are teachers, and others are high-school students. The festival is as relevant as ever to these participants while students are marching to end gun violence and teachers are striking for better pay all across the country.
“I definitely don’t think that this should fall on teachers and that they should have to be out here fighting for funds, but that’s where we’re at and that’s really encouraging that they support the festival enough to actually get out and play it,” Evert says.
The role of art in education
When it comes to budget cuts, art programs are often the first to go. That’s tragic on several levels.
The arts can have a range of positive effects on a student’s experience in school. For some, art and music classes are safe spaces and a way to relax the mind after strenuous history or math lessons. They can also create an environment of self-discovery rather than memorizing facts.
“The schools I went to always had art programs, and I couldn’t wait to get into the sanctuary of an art class,” Peplin says. “I couldn’t wait to get into studying what’s inside my soul.”
B~Free — a Milwaukee neo-soul artist who is a music director for a Montessori school where she teaches K-8 Choral and General Music — witnesses this self-discovery daily.
“While the levels of interest and skill sets vary with each grade and person, I take great pride in being able to offer them a chance to flourish, express themselves or simply just have fun with a variety of music,” B~Free says.
Studies show that art and music classes also help boost student performance in other areas of education.
And then there’s the human contact the arts can forge.
Baumann remembers when he thought he was going to fail a high-school history class, but a mutual love for playing drums between him and a particular tough-grading teacher changed that.
“I found out that he played drums too,” Baumann says. “We began to build a relationship upon that, and I began trying harder and was able to turn my grades around.”
That same teacher was one of Baumann’s main influences for pursuing a career in the education system.
“Well-funded art programs allow us as people to better understand one another and the different mediums which these thoughts and experiences can be expressed through,” says Andrew Grygiel, an eighth-grade math teacher at Carmen Northwest Middle School and drummer for Gauss. “I know music has had a significant influence on who I am today. It is still changing me and influencing me all the time; it’s really omnipresent for me.”
The reality of the situation
While some art and music programs are cut entirely, the programs that survive don’t necessarily thrive. Art classes don’t have the supplies necessary to explore different mediums. Music classes don’t have enough instruments to go around, and a lack of funding eliminates any chance of extracurricular performances or educational field trips.
“Students need to feel secure in their education and trust that their school is equipped with the necessary tools to provide them with the best education possible,” says B~Free. “Students also need to feel secure in exploring their artistic talents, which isn’t an opportunity afforded to everyone.”
B~Free also notes that her job security is a constant reminder of how dire the situation has become.
“It can be difficult to deliver quality arts education to students with fear looming over your head on whether or not your position will be there by the end of the school year, or the entire program in general,” B~Free says.
Many teachers have to purchase supplies that are necessary for their curriculum with their own money. The limited supplies that schools do provide for them typically don’t last the entire year.
“There are people out there that think teachers are blowing smoke when they say that, but it’s absolutely true,” says Baumann. “I’ve had to buy batteries for calculators in the past. At my old school, teachers had to buy their own paper if they wanted to print out worksheets.”
Baumann adds that students would literally run to their orchestra classes because if they weren’t able to get there before a majority of the other students, there wouldn’t be any available instruments for them to play, giving them nothing to do for the remainder of the class.
“I could never imagine going to band and just having to sit there and watch,” Baumann says. “Why would anyone want to keep going to that class?”
Baumann adds that students would drop the course because of this.
“Now you just lost potential musicians while their creative opportunity is going to waste,” Baumann says.
While classroom supplies and music equipment are scarce, classroom sizes continue to grow due to a shortage of staff members, spreading teachers and supplies even thinner.
"It's hard to meet the needs of a classroom full of learners when your class sizes reach 40 plus kids," an art teacher and Arte Para Todos performer who prefers to remain anonymous says. "When there are so many different needs and abilities to work with in such a short amount of time, differentiation becomes difficult. The classroom ends up becoming less a place of excitement and exploration, and more a place that hinders practice and critical thinking."
In a new effort, Arte Para Todos is trying to soften the budget-cut blow by setting up collection points for art and music supplies.
There are three collection points: Enlightened Brewery, Black Husky and Redline Milwaukee. The festival welcomes donations of art supplies, musical instruments, cameras, drumsticks, instrument strings, photography lights and more.
“We’ve never done this before,” Evert says. “The idea behind it is that people who might not be interested in attending the festival or are unable to can still contribute.”
Making a difference
With many forces working against the education system, one wonders why anyone would want to enter the education field.
“Teachers have a demanding job where often times they spend their lunch break grading papers or prepping for the next day,” Baumann says. “There’ve been times where I just felt teachers are being bullied because of summer breaks and great benefits, which aren’t that great anymore.”
However, Baumann adds that his teaching continues to have a huge impact on adolescents, and that’s important to him — a reminder of why he got into teaching in the first place.
Grygiel agrees. “The most rewarding aspect in teaching for me is the day-to-day interactions with students and to be able to see them grow and change into some awesome human beings,” he says.
One could argue that music and education share this reality: It’s the love and passion that drive musicians to create and teachers to guide their students, not the paycheck. Maybe that’s one reason there are more than a few teachers who are also musicians.
So, do they really think they make a difference?
Absolutely, and the community can too with events like Arte Para Todos.
For a complete list of Arte Para Todos shows, visit arteparatodos.me/events/.