Sunday, November 13, 2011

Elevating Spirits, Nourishing Souls

Many of you remember my son Aaron, who graduated from JPII in the class of 2010 and is a current sophomore at Notre Dame. You may also remember me telling a brief story about him when he was a young boy. From the time he was a toddler, he started banging on pots and pans in rhythm to music. I think the first time we realized he had talent was when he was nine, after he executed a drum roll using two forks on a frying pan. So for his tenth birthday, we purchased him a Tama drum set. When he saw the set, he said something that I thought was unusual for a ten year old. Not “thanks Mom and Dad.” Not “Wow! That’s really cool!’ He said instead, with complete joy on his face, “I’m free! I’m free!”

I was reminded of that story as I watched the actors and actresses perform in our school play “Harvey” yesterday. The play was excellent, and I really enjoyed it. But if you really watched the students perform, it was obvious that they really enjoyed it, too. There was joy on their faces, as if performing in the character of someone else, getting out of their own skin and becoming someone else, is, in fact, liberating. And I saw that same joy in those of you who performed in what was a very touching Veteran’s Day concert last week, and as I watched some of you draw striking facial images on the large cardboard posters last week in the back hallway. And if you watch our best singers perform in concert, they almost can’t help smiling as they sing.

“Where words fail,” someone once said, “art often speaks, elevating the human spirit and nourishing the soul. “ That’s why I believe the arts are so important to JPII, so important to our life and identity here. We are a very unusual school in that all students are required to take three years of the arts here—most schools require just one—but because of that, your teachers are able to go much deeper than what too often amounts to “arts and crafts” at other schools. I was reminded of that when I walked into Mrs. Deal’s class last week and they were critiquing a photograph in terms of context and texture: the quality and depth of the students’ comments were impressive.

According to a study published by Dr. James Catterall, a professor from the University of California (cf. “Arts Education Partnership”) the study of the arts has very positive effects in advancing goals in other classes. Drama, for example, helps students understand social relationships and emotions and improves concentrated thought and comprehension. Music improves math achievement and proficiency, reading and cognitive development, and has even been shown to boost ACT or SAT verbal scores. The visual arts improves content and the organization of writing, improves reading skills and interpretation of text, and reasoning about scientific images. All these facts are just more reasons why it’s so short-sighted and sad when other school systems regard the arts as the first thing to cut in the curriculum when they need to save money.

Last year, our Board of Trustees published a five year strategic plan for JPII, called Vision 2016. Included in that plan were two major capital initiatives: upgrading our athletic fields and facilities and the creation of a the fine arts center. With the generous gift from Mr. Carell, we are just about finished with the athletic facilities—they laid down the sod Friday on the lower stadium and are putting rubber on the track this week. We now turn our attention to the fine arts center. The truth is, our fine arts program has been much more successful than even our founders, who were very pro-arts, dreamed. Not only do we have all students taking art for three years, many of you take a 4th year of art as an elective, and some of you take 5 or 6 classes by the time you graduate. We’re out of space!

I already have architectural drawings for the new center which include almost double the space for our 3D program, a digital computer lab adjacent to our Photography classroom, a huge 2D art room with large windows and natural light and an adjacent critique room (that gets Mr. King out of his glorified closet), a big, wide hallway with a skylight overhead that includes recessed walls to display student art, a multi-purpose room for one act plays and mini-concerts, a much larger choral room with elevated ceilings, plus additional practice rooms to support our choral and band programs, and bathrooms. It’s very exciting. The architect estimates the expansion will cost in the neighborhood of 3,000,000, and to do that, we’re going to need a lead gift of a little more than half of that before we can go out and raise the additional monies to make it happen.

How soon? That will depend on the generosity of someone capable of making such a lead gift. Pray with me that someone may be moved to help us. We’ve accomplished a lot in ten years, and all of us have reason to be proud of our school and its many programs. This would be the next big step for us.

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