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McKnight and RiverCenter Take Local Arts Education Full STEAM Ahead

Updated: Jun 8, 2018

It's no secret. Students engaged in arts education have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, and lower drop-out rates.

If you're reading this, it's likely you're a supporter of arts education or at least possess some knowledge of the positive effects it has on children both in and out of the classroom. (If not, take some time to peruse the additional resources listed at the end of this article.)

Local arts education efforts are not a new concept. For decades, our community has been shaped by leaders who have valued the arts as an integral part of Columbus' educational system. It's just that now, we have years of data to prove its worth.

Due to the combined effort of many individuals, thousands of local children have experienced the arts firsthand in the Chattahoochee Valley. This has taken place as a result of major partnerships between corporations and non-profits.

Rick McKnight, Education Program Manager for the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, coordinates multiple efforts every year with RiverCenter as a local champion for arts education in Columbus.

Rick McKnight

Oil on canvas


Randy Nguyen

Over the past several years, the RiverCenter has partnered with major corporations like Synovus and TSYS to bring programming specifically intended to integrate the arts into the curriculum of each and every classroom they reach.

In one initiative called RiverCenter Readers, volunteers spent a school year working on reading, vocabulary, and comprehension skills with students in a few local elementary schools. The results? Children in the schools with RiverCenter's arts education initiatives increased their end-of-year scores by more than three times expectations and twice the rest of the system.

Now, the program has been expanded to reach several more schools in Muscogee County and the results continue to show positive trends across the board.

On May 29, Fox Elementary School shared their stats on Facebook. The post shared a graphic of their performance highlights for this year (shown below) and a description that read, "Check out the amazing reading growth our third, fourth, and fifth graders made this year! 100 points is one year's worth of growth and our average was just shy of two year's growth in one year!"

The RiverCenter also provides educational programming via their Discovery Matinee series. Every season, the venue selects several productions to offer matinees for school audiences. Each show is selected based on how well it corresponds with state educational standards taught in every classroom.

RiverCenter also takes economic need into account, and raises funds for many children to attend. Thousands of children see Discovery Matinee shows for free thanks to RiverCenter's donors and fundraising efforts each year. This type of giving allows many children the opportunity to experience the arts in a way they might not be able to otherwise.

Many of the productions RiverCenter brings to its stage integrate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) concepts into their shows. Most are also literature-based. Productions are booked for all ages from preschool to 12th grade, and RiverCenter provides extra programming related to each show.

To guarantee the learning goes beyond the initial experience, McKnight ensures that RiverCenter works closely with educators to provide each teacher with lesson plans to correlate with what their students will learn from each show.

"It matters to us that these children gain more than the opportunity to see a wonderful production on stage," said McKnight. "Excellent arts education means touching their lives beyond a single performance. We are equipping them with skills that are lifelong."

RiverCenter completed its 2017-18 educational initiatives with The Rainbow Fish. In addition to several school and public performances, the series provided a Favorite Literature Comes to Life Residency at Downtown Elementary.

For an entire week, every student in the school worked with renown puppeteer and educator Claire Ritzler to create puppets from recycled materials. The puppets were characters from their favorite books and included The Rainbow Fish, Mouse and the Motorcycle, Pete the Cat, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Puppets were presented in a parade during the school's Fine Arts Day on the last day of the residency.

Teachers were impressed with the impact the puppetry residency had on their students. "Our students have benefited from this experience in many ways," said Lindsay Tassoni, Downtown Elementary's Fine Arts Lead. "They are tying the literature to a creative experience where they've had to work together, engineer puppets, and use their skills to achieve a goal."

McKnight said he will continue his work joyfully with the aim of providing educational arts experiences to as many local children as possible. He is passionate about the impact RiverCenter's educational arts initiatives can have longterm for the students they reach. He also knows from experience the impact it can have on the adults involved as well.

"The children we serve come from all different schools, backgrounds, cultures, and demographics," said McKnight. "But they all share one thing in common- they're eager to learn about the arts. Studies show that arts education has so much to offer these students, and we are proud to assist in that process. Every year, I simply can't wait to see what they learn and what they'll teach me along the way. Arts education is teaching, equipping, and shaping our students. And it'll change us as adults, too. If we let it."◼︎

More to Know:

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Additional Resources:

"The arts have been an inseparable part of the human journey; indeed, we depend on the arts to carry us toward the fullness of our humanity. We value them for themselves, and because we do, we believe knowing and practicing them is fundamental to the healthy development of our children's minds and spirits. That is why, in any civilization - ours included - the arts are inseparable from the very meaning of the term 'education.' We know from long experience that no one can claim to be truly educated who lacks basic knowledge and skills in the arts."
–National Standards for Arts Education


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