As a young mother new to the district in the early 1970s, Candace Hinshaw remembers hearing about a magazine sale at Pine Ridge Elementary to raise money to bring in outside performers.
“They brought in an individual who was doing dog tricks,” she recalled. “I thought, we’re sending these kids out to raise money and they’re seeing dog tricks? I said, what about the performing arts?”
For more than 40 years, the all-volunteer Cultural Arts Committee she founded, made up mostly of district parents and elementary principals, has worked to help its elementary schools attract and book local and regional artists to provide programming that aligns with curriculum.
“I look at education like a cake,” Hinshaw said. “You can’t bake a cake without the flour, or the shortening or the sugar. The arts are the sugar. It’s a basic element of education.
“Not every student does well academically, but there is something for everyone in the arts,” she added. “And a lot of students find their way through the arts, and it spills back over into the academic field.”
Arts a Family Passion
Hinshaw came from a family of art lovers. Her aunt was a docent at the St. Louis Museum for the Arts, and her mother took an active interest in the arts that she passed to her children.
Hinshaw and her husband, Mark, bought their first piece of original fine art, a painting of a Hopi Indian, when they lived in Arizona. She was an elementary teacher for four years while she pursued a master’s degree in special education, before moving to Michigan to raise their children.
Having recently gone to a meeting of an arts group in Grand Rapids, the longtime arts aficionado asked around at the district whether there was interest in meeting about improving offerings in the schools. From that, representatives from each elementary school and interested parents formed the district’s Cultural Arts Committee in fall 1976.
“The committee decided we would do whatever we could to bring in all aspects of the arts,” Hinshaw said.
In those early years, performers would “audition” for the committee in a member’s home. Hinshaw recalls an opera singer, a theater actor, and a dancer who demonstrated how she would work on movement with students.
They have booked symphony musicians, fine artists-in-residence, authors, puppeteers and theater performances. In the case of performing artists, they hosted groups in the schools during the daytime and booked events for district families at the high schools in the evening.
“This generated a lot of interest from the families,” she recalled.
There also was an astronaut who inspired the 1998 creation of a mural by students at Northern Trails and Central Woodlands elementaries, who worked under the direction of the late artist Jose Narezo.
Attracting Visiting Artists
Hinshaw, now 76 with grandchildren in the district, started what became an elementary school visiting artists effort that has secured hundreds of thousands in grants over the years. Along with PTO funds, the grants have kept the district’s spending on those programs at zero. She also helped found the district’s Educational Foundation, now the Forest Hills Public Schools Foundation, which has awarded grants to pay for some of the committee’s programs.
Other programs have included illustrator Tom Woodruff, the Mackinac Island Historical Touring group, the artist-in-residence program with the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, folk artist Reb Roberts, Circle Presents theater performances, Schuler Books & Music author presentations, Bright Star Touring Theatre, Brainstormers and more.
The Forest Hills Cultural Arts Committee has not kept its methods a secret. Other districts have attended committee meetings — most recently from East Grand Rapids, Rockford and Grand Rapids Public Schools — to learn how they can up their own arts programs offerings.
Abby Sorota, co-chairwoman of curriculum enhancements at EGRPS, said she attends the Forest Hills meetings to trade experiences on performers.
“We recently had singer Tony Reynolds perform at Wealthy Elementary,” she said. “He did a wonderful program of different styles of music and explained their cultural and historical significance to the students. We would never have known about Mr. Reynolds and his show without the committee.”
Sorota added that the committee plays a critical role in helping to share costs and coordinate calendars across the area. “As we all know, school funding declines have had a significant impact on the cultural arts in our schools,” she noted. “By ‘block booking’ we all save on the funds required to pay for these programs, which enables us to do more with less.”
Hard to Impact Upper Grades
Hinshaw said efforts to include the middle and high school buildings in programs of the Cultural Arts Committee had trouble getting off the ground, whether it was trouble securing funding or ever-present demands on students’ time.
She said she regrets the committee hasn’t been able to make more of an impact on the district’s upper grades.
“I would like to see teachers be able to have the time to bring programs into the high school and grades seven and eight. To me, what’s 45 minutes or an hour a month to bring in something that’s going to expand children’s imaginations, their creativity, their understanding of the humanities?”
John DeStefano is director of fine arts for the district, overseeing all programs such as band, orchestra, choir, performing arts and theater. He sees the arts in school as “critical in allowing kids to express themselves in a way where it’s not always related to a grade, or where you have an opportunity to express yourself in multiple ways before you even think about what grade you’re going to earn. Plus there’s just volumes and volumes of research that shows that kids in music and art just do very well in school.”
Things get complicated in later grades, he said, because of demands on students’ time.
“Student-wise, the number of kids in seats is not what it was 10 years ago because of the added options, (with students) saying ‘Do I want to take that extra math class that might get me better positioned for college or do I continue in orchestra?’ We have those kids who try to hang on (to arts classes), but it becomes a challenge.”
DeStefano also noted an overall decrease in elementary students and the shift about a decade ago from a seven-period day in the district’s middle school to a six-period day. “That really put a bit of a squeeze on things, and not just the arts. All those singleton classes were really pushed to maintain their numbers.”
‘A Living Legend’
Nonetheless, the Cultural Arts Committee’s impact on the district has been measurable. Meggan George, director of the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center and coordinator for the district for 22 years, calls Hinshaw “a living legend” for what she and the committee have accomplished.
“My involvement (with the committee) has been the most enjoyable aspect of my employment with Forest Hills Public Schools,” George said. “The parent volunteers who give their time and talents are beyond exceptional.
“Their work to enhance existing curriculum and work with their principals and teachers is so important to the success of the programming … and drives the importance of continuing to keep the arts as an integral part of the lifelong learning experience.”
For Hinshaw, whose goal was to find a way to share her passion for the arts with others by creating something with lasting impact, the Forest Hills Cultural Arts Committee has fulfilled that goal.
“I really love being involved with children, and I believe we have to put a lot into forming strong, well-rounded citizens,” she said. “My dad always told me, you’ve been given a good mind and you should be out in the community using it.”