Missoula Public Schools Get a Spark of Creativity


SPARK! Arts Ignite Learning is a new program making great strides in our community. The initiative was developed by a group of community leaders from the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), the Missoula Cultural Council, the City of Missoula, The Washington Foundation, numerous local arts organizations and the Kennedy Center.

Known nationally as the Any Given Child Initiative, this program was created through close work with representatives of the Kennedy Center to help develop a program that would ensure equal access to significant arts education for every student in the MCPS district. Missoula is only one of sixteen communities across the nation chosen to participate in the initial stages of what the Kennedy Center hopes will become a nationwide approach to arts education.

In a climate nationwide where the idea of increasing rather than subtracting arts resources and staff in public schools was almost laughable, SPARK’s efforts in the first year of implementation alone (which isn’t even over yet) have reached over 5,400 students and more than 120 teachers in the district. The impact we are already seeing in the schools has encouraged MCPS to increase the amount of arts teachers in elementary schools.

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“SPARK is making a difference in the lives of kids in its first year of implementation. Every MCPS 2nd, 3rd,  4th 5th, 6th and 7th grader has been directly impacted.”

-John Combs, Supervisor of Fine Arts, MCPS

This program is achieving more than its stated goals and the first year of implementation hasn’t even come to a close. Much like arts education itself shows significant improvement in performance and has the capability of impacting high risk students to the point that graduation rates increase, SPARK has created a paradigm shift in the way our leaders are thinking about arts education.

If you take away the threat of raised taxes, if you eliminate the competition of which program must be cut, it’s a no brainer that the arts have a solid place in our schools. So that’s what the Kennedy Center did. They developed an approach to arts education, tailor made for each community, that could succeed outside of the constant struggle for major funding. The program operates on community cooperation and a strong arts community. So it’s no surprise that Missoula is quickly becoming a model community for the national initiative.

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It isn’t free, however the costs involved in operating SPARK are a drop in the bucket compared to what would be needed to provide the same services through school funding. And the results are already incredible. Thousands of students have had the opportunity to visit community partners such as the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, the Missoula Art Museum and many more.

But the program isn’t limited to viewing art. As SPARK continues to ignite learning in our community, the flame is catching faculty and staff of MCPS as well. With the help of the Kennedy Center and the University of Montana SPARK is bringing arts integration workshops to the faculty of MCPS.

As the Kennedy Center defines it, “Arts integration is an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.”

A perfect example of arts integration in action is the recent performance I attended, along with hundreds of elementary school students, of Fire Speaks the Land. This is a dance performance and interactive lesson in fire science developed and produced by Professor Karen Kaufmann (recent MCC Art & Culture Award Recipient and nationally recognized educator and artist).

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Among numerous other lessons, specific dances describing the way in which fire travels through convection, conduction, and radiation were taught to students, effectively transforming the lesson from abstract concepts to principles that aren’t simply learned, but become a part of the students muscle memory.

It’s clear that arts integration is the future of education, and what we know intuitively about the benefits of arts in education, is being proven empirically over and over again. From higher graduation rates to higher SAT scores, the list of demonstrated benefits that arts education and integration brings to students goes on and on. As more and more employers across the nation seek out creative minded employees and our city plans for growth, we can rest easy that SPARK is preparing the next generation for the future.

Visit the SPARK website to learn more and contact Executive Director Chris Neely about opportunities to get involved through volunteer efforts or donations.

SPARK! Arts Ignite Learning is a program developed in conjuction with MCPS, The Kennedy Center, and the Missoula Cultural Council. To learn more about the Missoula Cultural Council’s mission, programs, and events visit the MCC website.