Seattle World School (SWS) is one of several Seattle Public Schools to launch an arts plan through The Creative Advantage, a city-wide partnership to reinvest in equitable arts education for all students. Funding from these efforts allows SWS and other activated Creative Advantage schools to partner with local arts organizations like Spectrum Dance Theatre and Jack Straw Productions. Located in Capitol Hill, SWS is unique in that it primarily serves immigrant and English Language Learners (ELL) students. With over 20 languages and more than 30 countries represented at the school, students are not only learning subjects like math, science, history, and language arts, but are simultaneously learning English as their second, third, or fourth language.
So we wanted to find out: what role do the arts play in these students’ educational experiences? With the help of SWS music teacher Aimee Mell, we recently had the pleasure of visiting two choir classes and speaking directly to students about what arts programs mean to them.
Walter, an 18-year-old student at SWS, is involved in choir. “I like choir because I learn a lot of words and their pronunciations,” he told us. “It helps with my English, like understanding words in math class or understanding the meaning of a song.”
Walter has many goals for his future. First he wants to go to college, but after, he’s also interested in becoming a doctor, joining the Army, or trying out for the Seattle Sounders. The skills he’s gained from his arts classes, like becoming more fluent in English, may help him achieve those dreams.
And Walter isn’t the only student who feels the arts are benefitting him both in and out of school.
“I really like when I have to work with my hands, like drawing or sewing,” said Shirley, 16. She hopes to one day become an interior designer, and she knows that her arts classes are helping prepare her. “For example, when teachers ask me to do posters, they really appreciate my work and art skills,” she explained.
Music teacher Aimee Mell also believes the arts can help newly-emigrated students, like Walter and Shirley, transition to life in the United States.
“My goal is that when students newly arrive to the U.S. and at the World School, that they will walk into my music room and find something they can relate to, and that they will feel a little piece of home,” she told us. “Learning and living in a new language is daunting, and hopefully music is a place of fun, refuge, community and success.”
In addition to preparing students for success in life, arts classes at SWS provide creative opportunities for students to express themselves. Dona, 16, is involved in choir along with Shirley and Walter. “I really have a good time singing with friends, and even on stage,” he told us.
The arts have helped Dona gain the courage to take risks and try new experiences, like singing John Legend’s “If You’re Out There” at a choir concert or acting two different roles in the The Taming of the Shrew. “I like to try different things,” he said. “I like to sometimes do drama and sometimes music, and even art—though I don’t know how, but I’ll try.”
Arts classes have been an integral part of Dona’s education at SWS. When we asked how he would feel if he lost access to arts programs, he found it difficult to imagine. “I don’t know how I would enjoy my time without singing or acting,” he said.
Shirley feels the same. One of her best memories is from acting in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “When I did Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was the main character, so my grandma came from my home country, Guatemala,” she said. “I was pretty excited. She saw me in the play and she congratulated my teacher. That was the best play that I could do. And my dress was amazing, I really liked it.”
From sparking students’ creativity to helping them learn English, arts classes are a valuable part of the school day that should be accessible to all SPS students – a belief that The Creative Advantage is working towards making a reality.
Photo by Aimee Mell