Sarasota arts education advocate Nancy Roucher has been honored by the state for her longtime contributions to promoting arts education. On Friday, Roucher will be awarded with the Dr. Mary Palmer Trailblazer Award from the Florida Alliance for Arts Education at the organization’s annual summit in Fort Lauderdale.
“I have to laugh because I think of myself as more of a nudge,” she said when asked how it feels to be a trailblazer. “If you don't know what a nudge is, it's somebody that keeps reminding people all the time of not giving up and I guess that's probably one of my strongest characteristics. I was away when I learned my cohorts had submitted my name for this nomination and I was really quite delighted.”
Roucher founded Sarasota’s Arts Education task force in 1988 in response to a gradual erosion in arts programs in Sarasota County Schools. Roucher says the group’s biggest challenge came in 1995, when the county school board eliminated all elementary and middle school art and music teachers as a cost–saving measure.
“So we decided we would protest,” she said. “And we did not meet just with arts people or with school people. We met with the civic clubs and we went to the city commission and the county commission. Finally, then acting school superintendent Gene Witt called and said, ‘we hear you, come in and talk.’ I'm very proud to say that today Sarasota has art and music in every elementary classroom and drama and movement in many.”
Roucher says for many school districts in Florida and across the country, arts education is perceived as an “extra.” But the advocate and board member with the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, says there have been many studies that prove otherwise.
“There was a report in 2016 by Arnold Packer, an economist who was once worked for the Labor Department, and he talked about how education in the arts are essential to 21st century working skills,” Roucher said. “Somebody else who's picked up this mantle very effectively locally is Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College. “ He's talked about how creativity is needed in business. You have to think out of the box and the arts give you that opportunity. The arts cultivate thinking differently.”
Even so, Roucher has heard the arguments that if education cuts must be made, subjects such as math and science should take priority.
"I've thought about this for a long time," she said. "I would say that when you look at a flower, a scientist looks at it one way. He or she will designate its parts. They maybe will talk about what it needs to grow and flourish. The artist looks at it in terms of beauty and the meaning of it, so you get two different points of view. In math, you're quantifying things and you're figuring out formulas, and I think that the arts give you a vocabulary, logic, and a way of thinking. When you really get into an artistic discipline, that helps make you a whole person.”
In 2011, Sarasota County Schools was the sixth district in the country chosen for a partnership with the Kennedy Center to develop a long-range arts education plan. The project received a $1.2 million grant from the U.S Department of Education. Among the resources created was an arts integration league.
"And that means that there are teachers that go to an extensive training,” said Roucher. "Through the arts integration program, we want to encourage non-arts teachers to understand the strengths of the arts and in enriching their own subject areas too.”
So, Roucher says, arts education is a holistic approach to learning.
“That's the message and why we have to keep telling our story,” she said. “The arts are important for every child. It's not about making them opera singers, or tap dancers or performers. It's about the processes involved in the arts.”