Paul Leopoulos, left, and Dr. Danny Fletcher, leaders of the Thea Foundation, which promotes the arts and music in schools.

We all like to think that our children will be geniuses, but what if you were told that 98 percent of 5-year-olds demonstrate genius capability? And that almost everyone is born with the capacity for genius? The catch is that when children enter mainstream school and undergo social conditioning, that capacity deteriorates rapidly.

This is precisely what Sir Kenneth Robinson, a British author, speaker and international adviser on education in the arts, discovered in a longitudinal study he conducted over 15 years on 1,600 children. He followed the children from kindergarten through to high school, testing them every five years for their ability to think laterally – to see many answers or solutions to one question or problem. Shockingly, Robinson found that as children became “more educated,” their genius capacity was decimated and their ability to think outside the box was diminished.

Robinson also found, however, that one thing helped to reverse this trend, and that it was the very thing that is being systematically removed from school syllabuses: the arts.

Robinson is not alone in his findings. Many studies have revealed a direct correlation between arts involvement and an increased performance in other subjects — including those completely unrelated to the arts. One study showed that students who had undertaken four years of arts coursework outperformed their peers with half a year or less of arts coursework by a staggering 58 points on the verbal portion and 38 points on the math portion of the SAT.

And yet despite this evidence, according the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), opportunities for students to participate in high-quality arts instruction and activities are diminishing in schools across the country as a result of shifting priorities and budget cuts. According to the report, the worst affected are poor, inner-city and rural schools that bear a disproportionate share of the losses – and which make up a large percentage of Arkansas schools. Studies also show that children from low-income families are less likely to be consistently involved in arts activities or instruction than children from high-income families, placing them at an enormous disadvantage.

Last year, Kansas became the first state to announce that the arts had been entirely removed from its public school system, and Arkansas is one of the only Southern states whose departments of education have not adopted the arts as a core subject. As a result the arts are, as defined by the state, open to individual interpretation and even elimination. In fact, within the state, advocates say, the arts are so woefully underfunded that many art teachers are expected to conduct lessons without any art materials or budget. It is a subject that has Paul Leopoulos fuming. “Most art teachers in this state must resort to spending their own money to buy materials if their students are to have any experience of creativity,” he said.

Mission from the Art

Leopoulos, warm and friendly with an irrepressible smile, is the founder of the Thea Foundation. As we sit in his North Little Rock office, festooned with photographs of his family and friends, it is hard to not to become impassioned about his cause. We are joined by the foundation’s board president, and Paul’s longtime friend, Dr. Danny Fletcher. The two have resolved to spend the rest of their lives enabling children to access the arts, and between them they make a compelling case. Over 16 years they have built up their own body of evidence of the remarkable things children can achieve when they are exposed to creative pursuits such as music, drama and art.

Leopoulos’ interest in the subject was tragically kick-started in 2001 following the death of his daughter, Thea Kay, who was killed at age 17 by a reckless driver who fled the scene and was never caught.

When Thea had started her junior year she was what Leopoulos says education describes as an “average student” making C’s and a few D’s. He was surprised therefore when she came home and announced that she had enrolled in classes for acting, dance, competitive speech and art. “I didn’t say so to her at the time but I thought she was wasting her time,” says Leopoulos. “I felt she needed to be concentrating on the important subjects.” However, he and his wife, Linda, noticed that over the course of that year Thea transformed from being intimidated in school to becoming enamored with it. And it was with bittersweet pride that they learned, just a few days after her death, that she had achieved an A in what had previously been her least favorite subject, trigonometry.

At first, the reason behind the sudden turnaround was a complete mystery, and in a desperate attempt to try to piece together what had changed in Thea’s life, Paul and Linda searched for answers and found them in Thea’s journal.

“When you’re put behind an eight ball like that you grasp for something,” explains Leopoulos, “Thea had gone from ‘I hate math and science’ to ‘man I want to take calculus and physics next year.’ We didn’t understand the transformation, so we made it our goal to learn about and validate what happened to her. And we discovered that by enrolling in the arts her confidence and enjoyment of learning had soared. That passion and enthusiasm trickled into every other subject.

“That set me on a new path in my life. I had a degree in education and counseling and I thought I understood education, but really I didn’t know anything. Now we are huge advocates for children having access to the arts, and we will not rest until we change the culture in this state that fails to understand that the arts are just as important, maybe even more important, than math and science. And how that the arts can enrich kids like my daughter and make them feel that they have a capacity for the more difficult subjects.”

“And it has been shown,” adds Fletcher, a professor of music who taught Thea and Thaddeus, Leopoulos’ oldest son, “that learning music helps in learning math, it uses the same parts of the brain, and they are both all about patterns, they go hand in hand. When children start learning the arts they blossom all round.”

“That is what happened to Thea,” Leopoulos said. “She was intimidated by math until she got into the more creative classes and then that confidence gave her the ability to believe in herself. Her mind opened up and then she was able to let back in all that creativity that had been knocked out of her in those earlier years.”

Thea Kay Leopoulos, bottom left, was killed at 17 by a reckless driver not long after discovering her passion for acting, creative writing and art. That passion had fueled a remarkable turnaround in her performance at school. Her father, Paul, began the Thea Foundation to honor her and to promote arts and music education at schools throughout Arkansas.

One national study of over 25,000 middle school and high school students goes even further in highlighting the importance of the arts in personal development. Researchers from the University of California found that students with high arts involvement not only performed better on standardized achievement tests than students with low arts involvement, they also watched fewer hours of TV, participated in more community service and reported less boredom in school. So why are the arts being systematically erased from the national curriculum?

“It’s sort of an abstract area,” explains Leopoulos, “and people only want to focus on children getting good jobs and contributing to the economy. They don’t see the point in wasting time on the arts but they fail to understand that the arts are the key. We have a tendency in this country to go only in one direction and everything else then doesn’t exist, and I’m afraid that we’re going where it’s only math and science, and art doesn’t have any place. I think that’s a dangerous place to go because the arts in school will open up more kids’ minds to go into math and into sciences with a deeper appreciation and understanding for it, so that they’ll be better scientists, better entrepreneurs, better anything.”

“And everybody wants totally empirical proof,” adds Fletcher. “But I think the proof is there and always has been there, it’s just that people don’t recognize or acknowledge it.”

“I would say that there has been a movement of getting rid of the arts in education,” Leopoulos says. “It hasn’t been documented as a movement but there has been a movement. And I would say that it has hurt our schools but nobody wants to admit it. Until we have a culture in schools that is musical and creative and all of these things that get kids to relax, things won’t change.”

Not Getting Brushed Off

But thanks to the Thea Foundation, things are changing, at least here in Arkansas. In 2002, Leopoulos set up the foundation with the sole purpose of bringing the arts back to children in this state. From humble beginnings, the foundation now has five diverse programs bringing children into direct contact with the arts. From “Thea’s Art Closet” which has given more than $1.5 million in art supplies to more than 402 schools and 230,000 students across the state, to a groundbreaking scholarship program that has awarded close to $2 million to Arkansas high school seniors – and which has been matched by the foundation’s partner colleges.

The scholarship program is the longest-running of the Thea initiatives and is clearly something that Leopoulos is incredibly proud of as he shows off photographs of past winners. “The thing about this scholarship,” Leopoulos explains, positively beaming, “is that it is open to absolutely everyone, and winners are picked solely on their talent – absolutely irrespective of grade scores, financial background or anything else. Students don’t even have to use their scholarship grant to study the arts. Perhaps they want to study something completely unrelated to it but just happen to have a creative passion. We don’t dictate and we don’t care what their final subject of study is; this is purely about helping kids get to where they want to be and giving them a belief in themselves. In fact, I’ve had a few a parents call me and say, “my daughter was going to study to be a doctor but after winning your scholarship she’s convinced she can make it as a fashion designer, you need to talk to her.” And I just have to say, “sorry, but you need to let kids do what they love,” he says laughing.

As is the case with any nonprofit, money – or the lack of it – is always the biggest challenge, but the foundation continues to come up with ways to include children even when funding is not available. For example, the Arts Reconstruction program partners schools with cultural institutions and arts organizations in the state to provide opportunities for students to experience art during and after the school day. And in a strenuous effort, the foundation successfully revived a concept called “A+ schools” which was brought to Arkansas by the Windgate Charitable Foundation. Backed by Windgate, the Thea Foundation has trained 17 “Arkansas A+ schools” which have embraced a holistic approach to creative education by adopting their whole school teaching model. Supported and coached by the foundation, principals and teachers are creating inspiring and engaging places of learning for students across all subjects. The results speak for themselves.

In Hugh Godwin Elementary in the El Dorado school district, literacy levels jumped from 23 percent in 2005 to 88 percent in 2013 after the school became a Thea Foundation “A+ school.” And the number of students passing math leapt from 37 percent to 90 percent. Furthermore, school suspensions dropped from 84 in 2005 to zero in just one year. Not only did grades improve, so did children’s behavior, class participation and the relationship between student and teacher.

“One of the most important impacts of this is that no two schools are alike,” explains Leopoulos. “You may have 20 arts integrated schools within the same radius, but the schools get to form their own culture that works for them, because we’re all individually different. You’ve got different individuals, different teachers and they have to come together as a family and decide on what their culture of learning and infusing the arts into their curriculum is going to look like in that environment. That’s the beauty of it.”

“And parents come see their kids at A+ schools,” Leopoulos continues, “and they may come to a play but it might be a play about biology, so those kids are learning biology but they’re also entertaining and they’re doing something creative. Until we start to promote a culture of inspired and inspiring learning I believe our schools are in trouble. There are other issues that ruined our schools, but one of them is the lack of creativity and the lack of kids feeling comfortable, having fun, and being able to express themselves in school.

“I hear parents say all the time after a performance, ‘I wish I’d stayed in music, I can’t carry a tune in the bucket,’ or they say ‘I have no talent,’ but that’s not true. Everybody can act, everybody can sing, everybody has different levels of talent but they are afraid to step out and find it. That stigma pervades our society. Most people don’t realize their talents because they are afraid that they might not be good, or because they give in to what their parents want. If a school doesn’t make a child feel comfortable enough to have fun, then they never will discover it.”

Old Friends in the Picture

To date the Thea Foundation has benefited students, teachers and schools in 56 of Arkansas’ 75 counties. But despite the vast body of evidence to support their work, government funding of arts has not increased. In fact, it’s going in the opposite direction. “We are climbing a very steep mountain,” says Leopoulos. “I’m not mad about it; it’s a matter that they don’t understand, but we’re going to continue to educate, continue to move forward, because we know what the answers are when it comes to the arts and kids, and we’re never going to rest. I think more and more people are at least acknowledging it a little bit.”

Acknowledging it they are, and the Thea Foundation has some powerful allies, including the Clinton family. Each year, Bill Clinton is the keynote speaker at the foundation’s main fundraising event, “Into the Blue” and he will be taking up the cause once again in Little Rock on May 15.

Paul Leopoulos, at right with former President Bill Clinton, began the Thea Foundation to honor his daughter and to promote arts and music education at schools throughout Arkansas, along with awarding scholarships. Clinton is the regular speaker at the foundation’s Into the Blue fundraiser, scheduled May 15 at the Clinton Presidential Center and Library in Little Rock.

Clinton has said of the foundation: “The arts help people live their stories and at the end of the day all we’ve got is our stories. It is horrible that so many of our schools have taken arts out of their curriculums. I have seen kids in the mountains, in the Delta, you name it, whose parents are doing all they can do to keep body and soul together, feed their kids and pay their bills, and without the Thea Foundation those kids just wouldn’t have any opportunities. The Thea Foundation helps kids to create a better story, a better life.”

“I believe that the arts are not recognized as important elements in the educational process,” Leopoulos concludes, “because most people don’t understand how it works. Linda and I didn’t understand how important the arts would be to Thea and our sons until after the fact. That is why we are so passionate about educating educators, parents, lawmakers, anyone who will listen and learn from the many examples that are right in front of all of us. Thank God Thea got into the arts that junior year; without them she would not have found her passion.”

Into the Blue will be held at the Clinton Library on May 15. For tickets or more information, please visit TheaFoundation.org.