This California nonprofit is helping to restore arts education in public schools
P.S. Arts uses creativity to motivate and engage students
Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
As a new teacher, Kristen Paglia used her talent as a dancer to engage with her students. Now, more than 20 years later, she still uses art as a tool for education and empowerment as the CEO of P.S. Arts.
The organization serves kindergarten through 8th grade students attending underserved public schools in central and southern California. By teaching creativity and broadening students’ horizons, P.S. Arts is helping to equip the next generation of innovative leaders and problem solvers.
This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you start your community work?
I began working in arts and education over 20 years ago as a special education teacher in Paramount, California. At the time, you could teach with a bachelor’s degree and something called an “emergency credential,” so I really didn’t have any significant teaching experience. I found that my background as a dancer helped me through that first year teaching, and engaged and motivated my students like nothing else! We integrated music and dance into almost everything we did, and I discovered that the students with learning disabilities or who were English learners especially benefitted from learning through movement. That work led to my pursuit of a creative arts therapy certificate, and, ultimately, to a doctorate degree focused on how dance helps students on the autism spectrum communicate and express themselves. P.S. ARTS was a natural fit for me. We serve 25,000 of some of the most vulnerable children in California with dance, visual arts, music, and theater, providing them with the tools they need to become innovators and leaders in today’s creative economy.
What inspired you to do this work?
I mentioned my early days as a teacher, but what most inspired me to do the work I do for P.S. ARTS is seeing first-hand how the arts heal and transform kids’ lives. Shortly after I became an arts therapist, I worked in a locked facility with adults who had committed violent crimes. It was so clear to me that the need for compassion and creativity, an outlet for stress, and a way to process trauma was key to recovery. The arts helped with all of these things. So many of the people I worked with expressed how differently they felt their lives would have been if they had the opportunity to experience and make art with their peers and community as young people. I knew I wanted to be with an organization that made the arts a possibility for as many children as possible, and that’s what P.S. ARTS does!
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
Putting arts back into high-need schools does even more good for the whole community than I knew when I started this work. I was focused on the benefits for individual students who are more likely to get good grades and graduate from high school when they participate in the arts. What has really moved me over the years, however, is seeing how the arts bring whole school communities together. P.S. ARTS hosts free art-making nights for families at all of our partner schools. The turnout is incredible! More often than not, the school principal tell us that P.S. ARTS Family Arts Night is better attended than any other after school event. It elevates the whole climate of the school. You see families having fun together, the hallways are filled with music, and student artwork covers the wall. These schools become safer, happier, more aspirational places where our children can thrive.
What do you love about your community?
I am so proud to be part of the P.S. ARTS and California public school community that is so incredibly giving and focused on children’s wellbeing. I know that every decision is made with the best interests of children and our future world at heart. Everyone on the P.S. ARTS staff, faculty, and board of trustees works hard, and gives so much of themselves, to ensure that generation after generation will grow up to be joyful, healthy, productive members of society.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
I think most people already know that teachers are superhuman, but I can’t let the opportunity go by to give a special shout out to the P.S. ARTS Teaching Artists. These women and men are the most committed and passionate group of professionals you can imagine. They make it their personal mission to fill each and every one of their students’ days with inspiration and imagination.
What leader or leaders inspired you?
There are many, particularly teachers at every stage of my education. I also draw inspiration and strength from a number of artists. Most on my mind recently is the children’s book author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak. “Where the Wild Things Are” and his other works show so much reverence for childhood and the power of children’s imaginations. Not long after his death, I read an old interview where he said, “It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.” It made me think a lot about the importance of the work we do at P.S. ARTS. Children’s lives are not easy, especially children who live in poverty and all that can come with it. All children need to know there is a big wide world out there, and that they not only have the power to inhabit it, but to create it, as well.