The entrance halls and ground floor public spaces of the U.S. Department of Education are filled year-round with color, creativity, and powerful ideas, thanks to the talents of young artists from the United States and around the world. In November, ED conducted a host of special activities celebrating the 15th anniversary of International Education Week, including an opening reception and ribbon cutting for the 2014 VSA international children’s art exhibit Yo soy…Je Suis…I am…My Neighborhood, presented by the Office of Very Special Arts (VSA) & Accessibility and the Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program. Each year VSA, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, receives over 700 international and national entries from students with disabilities, ages 3–22, and competition winners display their artwork at ED.
The event featured a robust lineup of speakers, including education leaders as well as a student, teacher, and parent. Highlights also included a performance by the NPR-acclaimed P.S. 177 Technology Band, made up of nine students from a school in Queens, N.Y., for students with disabilities. The exhibit featured art pieces by students from Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Saint Lucia, Taiwan, and the United States, depicting the importance of their neighborhoods.
ED and the U.S. Department of State established International Education Week in 2000 to promote and celebrate the role that education plays worldwide. Maureen McLaughlin, director of ED’s International Affairs Office, spoke about the importance of arts education in supporting international cultural awareness: “Visualizing our neighborhoods allows each of us the opportunity to show the people and places that we love.” Emphasizing the exhibit’s importance, she stressed that “[l]anguage can be a barrier, but pictures bridge that gap.”
In a recorded message, Secretary Arne Duncan highlighted the value of international study programs in fostering cultural understanding, social development, and economic health. He said, “The ways in which citizens interact with each other … have fundamentally changed,” and emphasized the importance of education as we “redefine what it means to be ‘neighbors’ in an increasingly interdependent world.”
To be a neighbor also means to ensure access to success, regardless of background or ability. Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, championed the values of inclusion, equity, and opportunity: “It starts with expectations, with high expectations. If we have high expectations for kids with disabilities, we have high expectations for all of our kids.” He emphasized ED’s focus further, saying “[I]t’s making sure that we’re focusing on results and better outcomes for our kids.”
Adam Goldberg, music teacher and founder of the P.S. 177 Technology Band, exemplifies what it means to set high expectations and foster opportunity for students with learning disabilities to dream big and succeed. Through Goldberg’s inspired teaching, students not only develop musical skill but also social awareness and confidence. Student performer Denzel Jackson commented, “I’ve learned to play rhythms within a steady groove. … It’s all about watching, listening, and feeling the music.” Hyacinth Heron Haughton, mother of band vocalist Jason Haughton, stated, “With the help of Mr. Goldberg [my son] has excelled tremendously.”
In addition to using traditional instruments, students used iPads to produce complex musical arrangements. The band performed three musical selections. When You Come Back, written by South African artist Vusi Mahlasela, had the audience clapping to its soulfulness. Though the lyrics for Being Me were written by Goldberg, the melody was inspired by student vocalist Jason Haughton. An instrumental version of the opera classic Nessun dorma (None Shall Sleep), an aria from Puccini’s Turandot, was the most difficult to perform because the beat fluctuated, requiring students to follow the conductor intently. Of his students’ success Goldberg declared, “I am so proud of them. … Every time we do this song … it gets better and better and better.”
After each performance the audience applauded the band with loud cheers and standing ovations. Tobi Lakes, the band’s keyboardist, surprised the crowd with his spontaneous post-performance speech when he excitedly yelled, “We are incredible! Yes! We did it! We made it! We have been working very hard since the beginning of the year, and we got it! Thank you!”
This event culminated with the traditional celebratory ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the student art exhibit to the public. Though this year’s International Education Week activities and celebrations have come to a close, the exhibit will be on view through Dec. 31 as a vibrant testament to the power of high expectations, diverse student voices, and art’s capacity to unite individuals and nations.
View more photos from the event.
Isadora Binder and Asheley McBride are staff in the Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), and Olivia Murray is an OII intern from the University of California San Diego.
The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public place that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at firstname.lastname@example.org.