Arts in Crisis


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An excited crowd fills the seats of the ComedySportz Theatre in Milwaukee. It’s a Friday night and Kesan Holt steps on stage. His slender 5 foot 9 frame stops at the center of the stage.The hot stage lights from above shine down. From up close, a bead of sweat drips down his smooth caramel colored face. Wearing a fake mustache, he stares into the audience with his eyes open wide. There isn’t an empty seat in the theater.

Holt crosses his eyes.

“I’m serious,” Holt shouts. “This is my serious face!”
The crowd erupts into laugher.

“I’m a kid who loves being on stage,” says Holt.

The 23-year-old Holt is hardly a kid anymore. He’s an active member of Milwaukee’s theatre community. Not only is he a performer at ComedySportz, he also organizes shows and helps teach an improvisational acting class at UW-Milwaukee.

“I’m doing what I love,” Holt said, “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve been doing it since I was young, I love it a lot.”

Holt has been performing on stage since he was five years old. He started by performing in church shows. By age seven, he was in his first play.

“I was Chip in Beauty and the Beast,” Holt said with a smile.

His interest in theatre led him to Milwaukee’s Roosevelt Middle School. It’s a Milwaukee Public School with specialized arts focus. As a student there, he took classes in theatre and dance.

“Why not pursue that,” he said, “It’s something I enjoyed.”

After Roosevelt, he went to Milwaukee High School of the Arts, another MPS school with a specialized arts curriculum.

That’s when he got involved in ComedySportz.

His school competed in a ComedySportz’s High School League, where he and other students put together an improvisation comedy team and went up against high school teams from all over the country.

“Our high school league, it was just a group of friends and other people we never really met before. It was really fun,” Holt remembered.

It was in high school when Holt got a taste of reality. He started to see that MPS’s budget cuts were forcing his school to scale back on art and music programs.

This affected his ComedySportz team directly.

“We didn’t have an actual faculty supervisor,” Holt said, “We had to do it ourselves. It was pretty garage band style. We promoted ourselves. We found places to meet, ourselves.”

In 2006, the year Holt graduated from high school, MHSA was $1 million in debt. Barry Applewhite, the school’s principal, said that the school couldn’t run on the money it received. Applewhite said this was because every school in the district was funded equally, but funding arts programs made expenses higher at MHSA than at other schools in the district.

That year, MPS central offices took control of the school’s budget and there were rumors that the school would no longer focus on the arts.
Holt said he and other students organized events that would help raise money. He, like other students at the school, wanted to make sure arts would remain an important part of the curriculum at MHSA.

“Having arts in school pretty much made me who I am today,” Holt said. “I am a direct by-product of having arts available to me.”

The Current Impact

Today, MHSA is still an arts school, with programs in theatre, music, visual arts, and dance. What remains unclear is how long it will be able to stay that way. Under Governor Scott Walker’s proposed 2011-’2013 state budget, MPS is set to lose nearly $74 million dollars in state funding. That is a 5.5% decrease from the district’s current funding level.

Under the budget proposal, the district would lose $550 for each student in MPS.

Allan Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University and former education writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said that this proposed cut is unlike anything the district has seen in the past.

“This is a horse of a different color,” Borsuk said, “They’re in tough shape.”

Borsuk said that MPS originally planned on a funding increase of $200 per student.

“It’s really a $750 (per student) cut from what they thought they were going to get.”

Peter Blewett, MPS School Board Vice President, says additional arts and music programs could be cut if the district loses funding.

“Are we going to be able to offer that quality of service under these budget prospects?” he asked, “I think it’s going to be tremendously difficult.”

Jennifer Morales is a former member of the MPS school board. She has three sons in MPS high schools.

“My youngest is 15. I’m very concerned that he won’t have the full range of programs that he should and that his older brothers had,” said Morales.

Borsuk said that it’s not just the art schools he’s concerned about.

“I’m actually less worried about them than the whole run of schools where they don’t have a specialty, where they don’t have that commitment and policy,” he said.

Dr. Daniel Donder is the Principal at Riverside University High School on Milwaukee’s East Side. The school has 1,600 students. It doesn’t have an art specialty, but Donder said the school tries to make arts and music programs as part of the curriculum.

“Hopefully we’ll have the arts and the fine arts,” Donder said, “The $74 million in cuts have me quite concerned.”

As of now, Donder said that his school has no plans to cut from its arts programs next year.

“We’ll have the same amount of art teachers and music teachers,” he said.

Arts Classroom Impact

Holt said that he hopes his old school and other MPS schools will still be able to fund arts programs for students, so they can have the advantages he received.

“I am very worried about the cutting of programs,” Holt said.
Holt said that experiencing the arts programs made school more interesting for him.

“I was never really a big fan of school,” he said. “Being a kid, I never felt like I loved school. But, I love parts of school, like theater class. Having theater class made me want to go there. It became the reason that I went to school after a while.”

Holt said that having arts helped him perform better in school.

“I needed to get good grades to participate in a show. I needed to stay out of trouble so I would have time to perform. Having art classes were a reward for doing well in school,” he said.

Morales agreed that art programs lead to students performing better in the classroom.

“They need to be able to produce, not just high math scores, but things that can show neighbors and the community that are expressions of themselves,” Morales said.

However, if MPS makes cuts, Holt thinks that students will still have outlets for pursuing the arts.

“I’m a firm believer that when there’s a will, there’s a way,” Holt said.

“If you take something away from someone who wants it bad enough, they will find a way to do it. That’s just human nature.”

Holt said that if arts aren’t in schools, there are still plenty of art and music programs outside of school that kids can take part in.
Even with those outlets, Morales is concerned about what cutting arts out of MPS could mean.

“If we take away everything that is fun about school, and take away the only way that that some of these kids are going to be able to express their deepest self, they’re going to disconnect from school. That has a long term community price.”

Uncertain Future

Because the budget hasn’t been adopted yet, no one knows what to expect if MPS loses $74 million.

“There’s no question they’re in a difficult fix,” said Borsuk. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months, but then I don’t know if anybody does.

“They are in tough shape. Where do you go, layoffs, school closings, major reorganizations?” Borsuk asked.

Morales said that standardized testing under the No Child Left Behind law could be the reason art and music programs end up getting cut.

“In the beginning of No Child Left Behind, they only tested for English and Math,” she said. “You’re looking at a school that has an art teacher, a music teacher, and a librarian. None of those things are on the test.

“The school is going to be judged solely on the outcome of the test,” Morales said. “A lot of schools made what is a pretty rational, but unfortunate decision to cut out things that aren’t on the test.”

Borsuk said that cutting from arts and music would be a continuation of a trend that has been going on in MPS since the 1990s. He said in the ‘90s, the district imposed revenue caps on schools, which limited the amount of money they could get from the state.

“Not only MPS, but statewide, there’s an erosion of art teachers and music teachers,” Borsuk said.

Blewett said whether or not MPS loses funding, it won’t stop him from doing what he thinks is right.

“We’re not going to let Milwaukee go. We are going to fight for the city,” Blewett said. “(The MPS School Board) will do everything in our power to make sure that arts are an important part of a child’s education.”