Who's got talent? High school students, that's who!

Not long ago, we were absolutely blown away by the talent and skills displayed at a high school fine arts night. It was an evening of intricate harmony, gut-wrenching drama and laugh-out-loud hilarity from the cream of the crop - students who qualified for state competition from regional vocal and instrumental music contests, and speech and drama contests.

It's a small school where, like so many rural schools, students participate in EVERYthing. But not because they're forced. It's because they're engaged.

In music, drama, and even among artists, there's a sense of belonging, of teamwork. There are inside jokes, grumbles of frustration, and fist pumps, knuckle bumps and shouts when things finally come together. The hard work, the hours of practice, the dedication all pay off. And these kids benefit beyond measure from going that extra mile.

Make that ALMOST beyond measure. The kids who displayed their vocal and instrumental music and dramatic talents that night are among students everywhere who benefit academically from the so-called "soft" skills learned in the arts.

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Did you know that a student involved in the arts is four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement? When you think about it, it makes sense - the arts not only teach kids to be creative, but it also teaches them collaboration, communication and problem-solving skills. Not to mention stick-to-itiveness - it takes a lot of dedication to learn a new song, memorize a script, or visualize and complete an art project.

They are able to translate these skills into other areas, including core subjects like math, science and technology. While it's true that technical topics all have their share of rules and formulae, they also require analysis. And analysis requires problem-solving and creative thinking, as well as the ability to communicate what was discovered.

The benefits of arts education don't end with high school graduation. More than 70 percent of business leaders see creativity as a top skill when hiring. Think about it - it's true across the board, from the office to the shop to the field. Who would you want in your corner - someone who looks at a problem and says it can't be solved, or a person who looks at the problem from all angles to figure out how to fix it?

The workplace isn't the only winner. Our communities benefit from arts education outcomes as well. Kids who learned music and art in school grow into adults who are up to three times more likely to volunteer in their communities. And not just in the arts - that sense of collaboration and community found in high school band or choir translates into finding ways to do good in the communities where they live.

With so many benefits from arts education, what's the big deal? All schools, especially small rural ones, struggle to recruit teachers (in all subjects, not just the arts). Unless a teacher already loves the rural lifestyle, it can be tough to draw them to a smaller district, especially on a smaller salary.

Between recruitment issues and dwindling budgets, it's easy to dismiss subject areas that - on the surface - don't appear to relate to reading, writing and arithmetic. Especially with the heavy emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

Yes, STEM education is important. But it's not all-important. We need a balance, and the arts offer that balance. The arts offer the critical soft skills that bring the big picture together.

So let's keep the "A" in "STEAM," and stand up for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math - in our schools and beyond.