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Investing in Arts Education

Unleashing Greatness Through Arts Education

Photo: Courtesy of Kael Bloom

The superintendent of Newark Public Schools is dedicated to helping students reach their potential based on a curriculum that includes music and arts education.


Roger León

Superintendent, Newark Public Schools

When Roger León was a fourth grader, one of his teachers made him the lead in a school play. He looks back on the experience with great fondness.

“It was a Christmas holiday performance, and I was Santa Claus,” laughs León, who credits Audrey Ertl of Hawkins Street School in New Jersey for sparking his interest in stage productions. “Being in her night show meant a lot. She had an incredible love for the arts. That type of exposure went a long way.”

Making a commitment

León, a former teacher, principal, and this year’s recipient of the Save The Music Foundation’s Administrator Award for Distinguished Support of Music Education, is passionate about providing students across the city of Newark with a well-rounded education.

“It definitely comes from my own personal experience as a student in Newark, but the development of children is equally important, as far as experiencing at a very early age many skills, among them a love of the arts.”

Exposing youngsters to music is crucial, according to León. “As a school system, we start at age three. We think it’s essential to not only focus on vocals, but instrumentals as well.”

Having an impact

The many ways students in the Newark system can express themselves includes playing in the band or singing in the choir. Concerts and recitals shine a spotlight on their talents, which can be extraordinary.

“The Malcolm X Shabazz High School Marching Band is the only one in our system, and maybe in the state, that’s performed for three different presidents,” León explains. “The opportunity to showcase talent at that caliber is exciting. The arts have always been an integral part of every aspect of schooling, and it’s on all of us to prioritize arts education in schools.”

Striking the right note

León acknowledges there can be tough choices for school leaders dealing with budgets, but with the arts, money shouldn’t be the deciding factor. “I see music as an integral part of our students’ progress and student achievement. I don’t see it as ‘extra’ or ‘more than’. I see it as ‘a part of’. Our strategy since my start is to try to wrap everyone’s head around that concept.”

When funding is the issue, the ultimate goal is always doing right by the children, according to León, who believes the arts are essential to improving student achievement and creating experiences.

“There’s something that happens to you when you sit at a Broadway play or listen to an opera. You become cognizant that there’s a world beyond your own space.”

Being an advocate

León says it’s the duty of educators and parents to get involved in promoting arts education.

“We have an art teacher at one of our schools who’s a band director. He has a passion for music. For staff to lead in this way is really important, and we have that occurring across the district. When it comes to recitals, a parent is always going to come to the school if we’re doing something that highlights his or her child. So there are kids doing well, teachers living and loving that energy, and a parent who stands in applause for a child who’s performing in front of an audience.”

Putting pressure on the administration to prioritize the arts is one way family members can demonstrate. Calling, emailing, or just being present at an event sends a message. 

“It’s about tapping into the greatness of children, so that everyone can understand their purpose and value. Imagine there’s a little kid who isn’t comprehending well in class. The numbers aren’t adding up for him, and he’s not understanding the scientific hypothesis, but ask him to sing and he belts out a note that leaves you mesmerized for days.”

León adds,  “If just a couple of people listen, they may be afforded the opportunity of being with a great artist, maybe in their own classroom, and they might not even know it.”

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