Making an impact in arts education

Mostly known for presenting curated seasons of touring Broadway productions and diverse entertainment, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center is often seen only as another big-time venue in Music City.

However, for the last 30 years, the non-profit arts center has served as a catalyst for the growth or Nashville’s performing arts community, and much of this impact can be traced to its nationally recognized educational programs.

Kathleen O’Brien, TPAC’s president and chief executive officer, cites the education programs, many of which began as innovative pilot projects, as examples of innovation and teamwork.

“Our education staff and teaching artists work closely with teachers and administrators. They’re in tune with daily life in Tennessee classrooms.  They’re up to date on changes in curriculum standards and the current concerns of educators,” O’Brien said.  “Every year, they also see dozens of performances from around the world, carefully considering them as they look for opportunities to serve Tennessee children and educators.”

O’Brien attributes the success of TPAC Education — the reason why Disney Theatrical Group chose Nashville for its first national pilot project in 2012 — to the strategic approach to arts education and the leadership of the staff.

“Our education department is led and managed by an extraordinary staff.  They’re highly-trained experts in their field who do incredible, groundbreaking work,” she said.

TPAC is home to four distinct programs offered to students and educators across the state, many of which are groundbreaking in their own ways.

ArtSmart, the first national affiliate of a program created by the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City, pairs professional teaching artists with educators to integrate the arts across curriculum with hands-on learning activities.

The aforementioned Disney Musicals in Schools is the first in-school outreach project outside of New York City Schools, producing musicals in elementary and middle schools through a strong partnership with Disney Theatrical Group. It now has completed three years in Nashville.

Humanities Outreach in Tennessee presents a curriculum-based series of performances of each school year, bringing children to TPAC and providing educators with comprehensive resources, including lesson plans and specific connections to state education standards.

Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts is the first national affiliate of the program created by the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, a nationally recognized model for using the arts to teach basic academic concepts and life skills to preschool children.

The combination of these innovative programs has caused many programs to follow in the footsteps it has created.

“I’m very proud of the fact that TPAC Education is one of the most comprehensive programs of its kind in the United States, a model that other arts organizations follow.  Over the past 34 years, we’ve served more than 1.6 million children and educators, using the arts to meet education standards,” said O’Brien. “From what teachers tell us, from what national research indicates, we know we’re making a positive impact in schools, classrooms, and individual lives throughout Tennessee.”

However, while the programs do have a focus on the arts, there is a strong connection to the core subjects with which students are already working.

“I always emphasize to others that our work is curriculum based. Our programs are directly connected to state standards,” O’Brien said. “Sometimes they bring life to required reading and courses of study, igniting a new zest for learning. Hamlet, on our upcoming season for young people, is one example of that.”

In order to stay on top of education trends and keep the programs as innovative as possible, the TPAC Education staff keeps an eye on research that links arts education to academic achievement and future success.

“I like to sum up the results of the studies by saying that ‘the arts make better students. Better students make better citizens, and better citizens make better communities.’ At a time when Nashville, Tennessee and the nation face changes and challenges in education, the arts can make a positive difference,” she said.

For more information on TPAC Education, including InsideOut for adult learners, visit

For research results on the impact of arts in education, visit ArtsEdSearch. The database created by The Arts Education Partnership was established in 1995 and supported by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

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