Local school and arts organization leaders are in fundraising mode to preserve a 4-year-old program that aims to send every Portland public school student to multiple cultural events in the city each year.

Culture Club-Portland is intended to allow each of the city’s roughly 7,000 students to attend programs at four participating arts institutions every year: The Portland Museum of Art, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Portland Ovations and the Portland Stage Company.

So far, the program has been funded by a total of $650,000 from an anonymous donor who lives in the city, but that funding runs out at the end of this school year, according to Kate Snyder, a former school board member who is now executive director of the Portland Education Foundation, which coordinates the Culture Club-Portland program.

“It is critical that we secure funds for 2016-17 by late summer, and develop a long-term plan for sustainability,” Snyder said. The four arts organizations also subsidize the program, and the schools provide in-kind donations of time and resources, such as transportation to the events.

Snyder described Culture Club-Portland as the only program nationwide to coordinate with multiple arts agencies and include all students in a public school district. “This access to arts programming isn’t available anywhere else and it’s free,” Snyder said. “We want people to be aware of it and be proud of it. It’s an incredible asset.”

Snyder and others in the arts and school community say they believe that the donor will continue to provide funding, but no commitment has been made and the donor has said he expects the group to find additional funding.

“All of us are committed to continuing Culture Club and we believe the funding will come,” said Anita Stewart, who is artistic and executive director of Portland Stage Company and works directly with the donor.

“The (donor’s) whole family has been a tremendous supporter of the arts,” Stewart said. “The donor is incredibly altruistic and really sees the value of the arts in a community and is really hoping to share that with students in Portland. Having the opportunity as a young person to participate made a big difference in their life.”

Stewart said the program has been incredibly successful so far. All four organizations have added educational programming to provide art experiences that go hand-in-hand with what the students are studying and the visual and performing arts requirement of the Maine Learning Results, the state’s education standards.

For example, Portland Stage artists go to middle schools to present scenes from classic plays such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antigone” – which the students are studying – then discuss the themes and interpretations with students and teachers. At elementary schools, they do dramatic readings of children’s books. For high school students, free tickets to matinée performances and lesson plans aligned to the performance are available.

“It’s kind of fantastic,” she said. “It’s not just entertainment. We make it something with educational value.”

The first few years, the group focused on creating those programs and gearing up for the ambitious goal of four events for each student – which would amount to about 28,000 “art experiences” each year.

Although the 2015-16 data isn’t available yet, a review of attendance data during Culture Club’s first three years found that it was mostly elementary school students who participated. The review was done by Jeffrey Baudry, an associate professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Southern Maine, and consultant Mavourneen Thompson.

In 2014-15, the program almost reached its goal of four events a year among elementary school age children, according to the review. Culture Club-Portland had 11,850 art experiences for the city’s 3,335 elementary school students, or about 3.5 visits each. There were 1,891 experiences for the city’s 1,485 middle school students, or slightly more than one each. Among the city’s 2,167 high school students, there were 1,597 experiences.

Snyder said part of the group’s ongoing efforts is discussing ways to increase the number of middle and high school students participating in cultural events.

Acting Portland Superintendent Jeanne Crocker said the school district wants to see the program grow.

“We embrace it so fervently,” Crocker said. “We want to be a partner in coordinating and growing this program so we can come closer to that goal of four arts experiences for every student.”

One of the most important aspects of the program, Crocker and Stewart said, is giving every student the opportunity to experience art in some form.

“We have this opportunity to expose and immerse our students in the arts,” Crocker said. “Some might have had the opportunity to do that anyway, but some may not, and they are bringing their families into it.”

The district’s community coordinator, Chandra Turner, said the arts organizations have worked closely with teachers to provide experiences that are in line with the classroom. That means reading poems about worms and peepers to elementary school students, and Greek mythology to middle schoolers. Some students attended a performance of “The BFG” at Portland Ovations because that’s what the students were reading in class. At the Portland Museum of Modern Art, the docents lead educational tours, showing students how artists use lines and color or explore the social science concept of “self” through art, she said.

“We love the work they are doing,” Turner said. “It’s been exciting to engage with the arts right in our community.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine


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