Theatre Addition to Art Requirement Causes Controversy
By Sophia H.
November 1, 2018
Head of School Elizabeth McGregor’s decision in the Fall of 2017 to change the art requirement marked one of the biggest shifts the Westridge art program has ever experienced since its implementation in the 1950s. McGregor’s decision, not without controversy, ultimately boiled down to one conclusive question: what kind of arts education should a Westridge student have?
For the last seventy years, Westridge required each graduate to complete one year of visual arts and one year of music. Students satisfied the requirements through a myriad of options including ceramics, chorale, painting and drawing, and orchestra. However, for over a decade, the administration had been discussing a major flaw in the art program and requirement: it didn’t give students the opportunity to study theatre and receive academic credit. While all students spent time fulfilling this requirement through the arts and music programs, many also spent countless hours after school participating in theatre. Over the years, parents and students alike lamented the lack of academic credit for participation in theater productions. Finally, in 2017, Theatre Department Chair, Brandon Kruhm, proposed a theatre program that would include acting and directing classes for credit.
When teachers propose new courses, the Curriculum and Academic Standards Committee (CASC) first reviews the proposal. As a group, CASC then decides on a recommendation to the Westridge Board of Directors. In his original proposal, Kruhm argued that “Theatre is an art form that is just as valuable as music or art. I don’t see it as more valuable; I think that they’re all just equally valuable and equally impactful in a student’s life.”
Though his proposed courses were approved by CASC as well as the Board of Directors, concerns sparked over how such classes would be treated under the implementation of the pre-existing arts requirement. Other concerns included timing and necessary preparation. One suggestion was to wait one to two years to allow time for the art and music departments to evaluate their programs and make necessary adjustments. In the end, Ms. McGregor made the final decision to change the graduation requirement to two years of any art program effective for the 2018-2019 year.
Since its implementation, the requirement change has launched discussions about what is in the best interest of student learning. On one hand, the new requirement provides more options for students. However, a student can graduate without having had any exposure to one program or another.
Here’s another way to think about it: Should a student be able to specialize in one art form? Or should every student be required to experience art, music, and theatre? Did the pre-existing requirements favor a more well-rounded education? Does the current requirement favor students who specialize? The art and music departments argue that the previous emphasis on art and music gave students the tools they need to be artistically literate. The administration asserts that allowing students to delve deeper into their chosen art is the most effective way to equip the student body for college and life beyond. In the middle is the theatre program which emphasizes the necessity of offering a theatre curriculum. “It was really important to me that students have options to really meaningfully study as part of their academic experience in an art form that they love and care about,” said Kruhm.
Michael Powers, Head of the Orchestra Program, believes that Westridge has a duty to expose students to music in order for them to be artistically literate. “There is a debate between duty and inclination. So one looks at: ‘What is the inclination of the student?’, ‘What do you want to learn versus what is the duty of the art teacher to make sure that you have what you need before you graduate?’, ‘What is it that we feel is important to send you out into the world?’,” said Powers. “I worry that [there are many students] who potentially, if they wouldn’t be required to, would never see a music class at Westridge at all.”
Power’s concern is reflected in current enrollment numbers as student participation in music is at a record low; the music department estimates that student participation in music is down by 50%.
While the new requirement has teachers looking ahead to program impact, the music department also looks back at the history of the requirement. Paul Stevenson, Head of the Chorale Program’s, quotes Westridge’s 76th headmistress, Libby Herrick, who instituted a visual arts requirement in the 1950s: “I would keep music and art in that period because I didn’t do that for fun; that was serious business. That’s part of one’s liberal education.” Stevenson hopes that graduation requirements will again include some form of musical education. “I hope that someday in the future Westridge will once again support music and visual arts because they are fundamental languages that all Upper School students should be taught, even if it is just for one year,” said Stevenson.
The administration’s decision did not seek to devalue the arts or any part of it. Ultimately, the change highlights the importance of giving students room to express themselves to the fullest extent in the art program of their choice. Gary Baldwin, Head of Upper School, ardently explains the importance of the decision. “Giving kids the choice of the kind of artistic expression they want to participate in really won the day here,” said Baldwin.
Concern over the requirement change has also been echoed by many students. Phoebe J., a sophomore with a passion for the arts, explains, “The art requirement has overall made my schedule and my daily life at Westridge more enriched and made me, just personally, happier and more content with my education because I’m participating in things that I like during my school day, not just as an extracurricular.” But with this appreciation, Phoebe also reflects on the drawbacks in the other departments. “The new art requirements have really drastically affected the music department in a really negative way which is really disheartening for me because that is also a really big part of my day to day life,” Phoebe says.
Although student reactions have been mixed, they have been largely positive. Most students feel the new option of theater and the lack of requirements give them the freedom to express themselves. But despite students’ positive views, worry over a de-emphasized music and visual arts program remains.
In response, Mr. Baldwin asserts, “There’s no question that the music program is hugely important to the culture of Westridge. At the same time, programs are more vigorous if the kids who are in there are kids who all want to be there and have some dedication to [the art] and are willing to sort of commit to it long term rather than checking a box along the way.”
Ms. McGregor also responds, saying middle school is where students have the opportunity to receive a diverse education in the arts and music. “We certainly have a responsibility through middle school, and that’s how we provided opportunities, and then we would like to be able to have that specialization in upper school as students so wish.”
While the requirement change intended to give students more options, the impact on student experience is more varied. With only fifteen students in Glee Club compared to twenty-nine last year, Glee Club is working harder than ever to maintain the high standards it has held in years prior. The drop in enrollment has also resulted in the loss of program offerings. This year, Intermediate Orchestra and Chorale classes were cut because neither class met the enrollment minimum. But despite the impact to the program, students such as those in Glee Club feel they have learned from the new pressure on individual participation. “It’s been a lot more difficult having to step up and become more of an individual. In the moment it’s frustrating, but long term, it’s been beneficial to me” said Claire C ‘21.
The long-term enrollment projections have yet to be determined, but the question still remains: What kind of arts education should a Westridge student have? For now, Westridge answers the question by requiring students two years of any subject of their choosing. In whatever way that requirement is fulfilled by students, the art program still stands as a pillar of a Westridge education. For many students, there is nothing better than the feeling of finishing a dramatic monologue, hearing the collective murmur of an orchestra, stepping back from a painting, or finding perfect harmony and striking dissonance. Despite arguments about the future of the Westridge art program, at the heart of these discussions lies a sincere commitment to giving students the most extensive and valuable education possible.