National Arts Education Leaders and Student Artists Reflect on the Meaning of Diversity

Student artists cut the official ribbon to open the PTA Reflections exhibit to the public and ED employees in the headquarters lobby. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.The U.S. Department of Education’s Student Art Exhibit Program partnered with the National PTA Reflections program for the sixth time to host the opening of a new exhibit at the Department’s headquarters titled "Diversity Means." For the past 44 years, the Reflections program has allowed millions of students across the country and at American schools overseas to unite around a common theme and compete in one of six mediums: dance choreography, film production, music composition, literature, photography, and visual arts.

Guests attending the exhibit opening included student Reflections winners, families of the students, local and national PTA members and staff, teachers, Department of Education staff, and arts enthusiasts. Student winners traveled from Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Carolina, as well as nearby Maryland and Virginia to be honored in Washington D.C. For many of the students in attendance, this was their first time visiting the nation’s capital and an experience of a lifetime.

Racquel Charles (left) performs her award-winning dance, "True Colors," with her former high school classmate Tija Passley. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.The audience welcomed national award-winning student performers Racquel Charles and Polly Moser. Racquel, now in her first year of college pursuing a degree in pharmacy, choreographed a dance titled "True Colors" and performed it with classmate Tija Passley. Expressing her vision of diversity, Racquel’s dance involved two high school students — one character symbolizing "popularity" and the other "insecurity." "The overall message is to express the importance of standing tall and being proud of who you really are, Racquel relayed to the audience before the performance. "It is because of our differences that we come together and explore each other’s styles and cultures." Polly Moser plays her composition, "The Flow of Water," for the Departmental Auditorium audience. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.Polly, a 12-year-old middle school student, was excited to be in Washington because one day she hopes to serve her country by working in government. A talented pianist, Polly played her music composition, "The Flow of Water." "My piece helps to illustrate that everyone is different and unique in their own way but, just like water, we are all flowing through the land and through life to the same place," she said in introducing the piece. Both performances received standing ovations.

Program speakers included Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle, National PTA President Betsy Landers, PTA Reflections program Chair Cindy Dearing, and National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) CEO Jonathan Katz. Each of them congratulated the students on their interpretations of diversity and provided their perspectives on how the arts encourage diversity and on arts education’s profound impact on the students who create and those who view their creations.

The program speakers, teachers, and special guests shared these reflections on the exhibit opening and the importance of the arts in education:

Betsy Landers, National PTA president: "The evidence is clear—an education that includes the arts helps students develop critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills necessary to meet today’s challenges."

Jonathan Katz, NASAA CEO: "There are more reasons why arts learning is essential to the practice of democracy. Creative writing, visual art, music, and especially drama all teach empathy. The arts help us understand perception. You learn that sometimes others perceive as you do and that sometimes you are in the minority. You learn that sometimes you just won't be understood. … Empathy is what drives civil liberties. It's what motivates people to perpetuate the kind of democracy we think of as American."

Deborah Delisle, ED assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education: "Each piece [of art] has identified diversity in a different kind of way. But if you look closely at each one of them, they will pull your heart into understanding that our kids get it. They understand that the world is so different, but we are all held together by a common belief in one another and belief in a hope for the future."

Tawana Montgomery, mother of choreographer Racquel Charles: "Involvement in the arts makes you willing to go the extra mile in any situation you find yourself in and gives you the strength and tenacity to push through any obstacles you suddenly find in your way."

Deborah Reeve, National Art Education Association executive director: "Clearly the range of interpretations of the 2011-2012 theme, Diversity Means … , show just how the arts celebrate multiple perspectives, with one of the biggest lessons being that there are many ways to see and interpret the world."

Cindy Dearing, National PTA Reflections chair: "The culture of arts is happiness. The arts should be a part of every child’s life."

Reflections winners are joined by their parents, National PTA officers, Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle, and NASAA CEO Jonathan Katz to celebrate the exhibit opening. Official Department of Education photo by Paul Wood.

From the performances at the opening and the artwork hanging in our headquarters' lobby, the Reflections winners demonstrate not only high achievement in the arts and other core subjects, but also the qualities needed for success in school and in life—expertise in communication, collaboration, problem solving, decision making, divergent thinking, creativity, and innovation. They represent, clearly, the country's proud future.

Click here to view additional photos from the event.

Chareese Ross is an information resource specialist in the Office of Communications and Outreach, and is on temporary assignment with the Student Art Exhibit Program.

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 202-401-0762 or at

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