The State of Arts Education in Palm Beach County

Interview with Dr. Donald Fennoy II, Superintendent, Palm Beach County School District

After leading a conversation on keeping the arts in educator’s curriculums during the November 13 UpstARTS: Educators session of the Institute for Cultural Advancement, Dr. Donald Fennoy took some time to answer questions on the importance of arts education and how the Cultural Council’s member organizations can better work with the School District of Palm Beach County.

Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy Palm Beach County School District

In your experience as an educator and superintendent, why are the arts important to a child’s education?

Dr. Donald Fennoy (DF): [The arts] allow them an opportunity to express themselves. It gives them something to do other than sit around the house, eat chips and play video games…I think it’s important to a child’s education because the connections between the arts and academic programs are much more real than people may think. When I was a kid, as a student learning both how to read music and taking upper level math courses, a lot of things started to make sense. The logic associated with reading music was the same logic that I applied to algebra. It was almost like “The Matrix,” I could see if the teacher was talking about a fraction and think “that’s a half note, quarter note or eighth note.” There’s a social, emotional piece to the arts that allows kids to be a little more grounded in reality.

In what ways will the newly-approved voter referendum enhance arts education in Palm Beach County?

DF: The new referendum will enhance the arts in several ways. One, it will help us maintain so that we won’t be losing any of our current processes and programs. Two, I think it’ll also allow us to attract more fine arts educators, because part of the referendum was specific to teacher compensation. That makes us highly competitive. Three, it allows us to potentially expand some of our programming, which is important. We have over 2,000 square miles of county and we want to make sure that kids in every corner of our community get access to great programs that they can participate in. The hope is to move forward and expand some of that work.

What’s the most effective way for cultural organizations to engage with the School District?

DF: I think the most effective way is to work with Edrick Rhodes [K-12 Arts Education Program Planner for the School District of Palm Beach County]. He has unfettered access to the superintendent’s office, which allows him to let me know what’s happening on the ground so that we can then work with the larger academic team and executive team to make sure that we’re removing barriers for success. We rely heavily on Edrick and the [arts] teachers and the principals out in the community-at-large. I think this district is very responsive to the needs and desires of the community and so I think as long as [organizations] are vocal and want to participate and see those things expand…we’ll move in the direction that we can afford to move in.

Do you consider yourself an artist?

DF: I consider myself a musician. I think music saved my life and, without it, I could have made some bad choices. The man you see today was truly molded by my [Florida A&M University] band director, Dr. William Patrick Foster, and my relationships with other members of the Marching 100. These are lifelong relationships, which didn’t end when college ended. These are connections I’ve made through music and an appreciation for music. I’m not out there performing, though. People keep asking me to, I don’t want to embarrass myself a bunch…but I still sing in the shower and stuff like that (laughs).

How do you convince opponents of arts education to see the well-documented benefits?

DF: I don’t know if they’re opposed to the arts for any other reason than financial. One of the things that I’ve been seeing lately is that there are major cities using the arts as economic engines for their community. And I think…if you’re going to attract a new workforce, which right now would be millennials, you need to have something that’s going to attract them to the area. And the arts are a really key way to accomplish that. They want something to do. They want to experience culture, they want to make sure they have access to other cultures through the arts. Concerts, theatre and the visual arts are tied into their dining experiences, their pub crawls…all of it. [Arts educations opponents] need to understand this could be the economic driver that can change a local community.

What’s the current state of arts education within the School District of Palm Beach County?

DF: I think we’re at a place where we can’t even measure ourselves against other [districts] because then, we won’t continue to grow. I think we are much better than especially-large urban school districts. But, we have to measure ourselves against ourselves, right? We need to create this sort of strategic vision of where we want to go and then aspire to and reach that because people are jealous of what we have here in Palm Beach County. I think this community has responded, time and time again over the years, to support the arts. It is growing. We’re embracing all types of cultural and artistic forms. You can see it driving around different communities. There’s a lot of large counties where it may be [concentrated] in one pocket…but that’s not Palm Beach County’s reality. You can drive to multiple communities and see art on the walls, you see murals, you see people playing music on the corners, outdoor amphitheaters, you name it. So I think we’re in a great place for that, but I do believe there’s more to be done as there is always more to be done. I don’t want us to rest on where we are today.