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District leader makes the case for arts education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Caralee J. Adams for Education Week

For Dennis W. Creedon, teaching children about art is as important as teaching them math or reading.

"People see it as a frill, but it’s not a frill. It’s actually the center of the core," said the 59-year-old assistant superintendent in the Philadelphia School District. "If you cut these out of schools, you are really cutting the heart out of our children and their future."

A big part of Mr. Creedon’s leadership has involved championing the arts, connecting community resources with schools, and using research and findings on brain development to make his case. He reminds arts groups that young artists are future ticket holders and cites the artistic and scientific outputs of Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Leonardo da Vinci to argue to educators that "science and creativity go hand in hand."

His advocacy strategies were sorely tested last year, when the 131,000-student District faced a $304 million budget deficit that led officials to cut 3,800 positions from the schools. The arts weren’t immune from the reductions. Some art teaching positions were eliminated, but most were later restored, thanks to an infusion of cash from the city. Funding for the arts is down 70 percent from the year before, but today there are more arts and music teachers than there were 20 years ago. Despite the recent bumpy ride, many feel it could have been worse if it weren’t for Mr. Creedon’s leadership.

"Last year, Dennis was in a horrible position to sail the ship. The ship was sinking," said Don S. Liuzzi, the conductor of the school system’s All-City High School Orchestra. "But it didn’t sink. He was a very persuasive and avid supporter of the arts. … Dennis is one of the reasons we are still afloat."

‘Something for me’

Mr. Creedon’s aggressive advocacy stems from his own belief in the importance of arts education, especially for disadvantaged children, who make up 87 percent of all public school students in his city. He often says arts lessons can help disadvantaged children deal with the stress in their lives because such activities are believed to trigger the body’s production of endorphins, a stress-reducing chemical, and less-stressed brains are better primed for learning. He also cites research from his own district that linked higher reading-test scores to students’ participation in a program known as Arts Bridges that built literacy skills through the arts.

A singer himself, Mr. Creedon speaks from experience. He has dyslexia; he failed the 2nd grade and was on the verge of giving up. Then through art therapy, for the first time, someone told him he was "gifted" with his artistic ability and singing voice.

"At that point, I knew there was something for me," he recalled. "Music and art became the two things I could hold on to while I struggled."

Mr. Creedon started in the Philadelphia District as a teacher in 1987 and worked as a theater education specialist on assignment with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, where he wrote grade-by-grade lessons linking the content of Don Giovanni and Madame Butterfly to the history curriculum and making them fun with puzzles and activities. Nearly 160,000 public school students have attended the opera for free since he started the educational outreach program. He joined the District’s central administration in 2002 and was director of comprehensive arts education and deputy chief in the Office of Academic Support and Enrichment before moving into his current role as assistant superintendent in 2012.

When the budget crisis struck last year, Mr. Creedon advised arts teachers to get on a school leadership team, beef up their certification, and explain to their colleagues how arts are linked to learning. While adhering to the cuts brought about by the District’s dire fiscal situation, he deftly worked behind the scenes, asking members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and others to write letters and plead with politicians to fund the arts.

Tapping connections

Mr. Creedon rebuilt the school system’s connections with the private sector to fill in the gaps. The District leader is known for being politically savvy and a great connector, thanks to his roots as a native Philadelphian, his background working at the opera as an arts provider, and his long tenure in the District.

In his work with the District, Mr. Creedon has helped integrate the arts into the core curriculum and has expanded opportunities for students in all forms of art, from visual arts to dance. He worked with the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership to start a summer arts-enrichment program and to bring visiting artists into classrooms across the city the rest of the year. The response to that program helped get traction for his call for a fine arts or music teacher in every school. By 2008, it was mandated that each school have art or music so that every student could have at least one lesson per week. Mr. Creedon has tapped government and foundation grants for visual arts, dance, music, and cultural programs.

"Dennis knows who is doing what. Where the arts can flourish and where they are needed," said Phil J. Juska, the director of community partnership and the administrator of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, which offers extensive free dance programs in the schools.

When Mr. Creedon joined the central office, cultural partners wanted to work with the schools but often faced resistance from teachers who felt threatened by the outside professionals. He declared to his arts teachers that the war was over.

"We are not in the position to think that we know best," he told them. "We must be collaborative and share, as well as learn. Then people would start coming to the door."

Mr. Creedon helped usher in private and public support for the arts in challenging schools, such as Gen. George G. Meade School, a K-8 school in a neighborhood plagued by violence.

"The arts for my students are like a safe haven — a way to express themselves," said Raqueebah S. Burch, the principal of the school, where nearly all students qualify for federally subsidized free lunches. "Students don’t have the coping mechanism to deal with the family situations. They have experienced so much loss."

There was no music at Meade 10 years ago. To get a program started there, Mr. Creedon offered to provide an itinerant music teacher if the school would promise to hire one the year after. He then connected Meade with Musicopia, a local nonprofit organization that helped the school get instruments and has since been an active supporter in other ways, such as paying for poetry and percussion workshops, ballroom-dancing lessons, and visits from hip-hop artists.

Finding partners

Musicopia executive director Denise M. Kinney said she appreciates Mr. Creedon’s help in linking her organization with the right schools. "Without the right partner, it’s a waste of people’s money," she said.

The combination of public and private money has made it possible for Meade to fill a classroom with all sizes of xylophones, cymbals, and bells. Twenty-five 4th graders can create a rich, full sound playing together — no sheet music required — under the direction of Rashawn Davis, 11.

"I like being a leader," said Rashawn, who also plays clarinet. His secret to getting his friends’ attention: "Being loud."

Mr. Creedon wants to inspire the 26 principals that he now supervises by exposing them to the arts — holding professional-development workshops at local museums and performing arts centers.

This profile, reprinted here with permission, appears in Education Week‘s annual Leaders To Learn From report, which aims "to shine a light on forward-thinking district leaders who seized on good ideas and executed them well in their school systems."

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