As a teenager in Wisconsin, Charles Staley and a bunch of his buddies decided to provide the music for the annual sock hop.
They formed a band, sat down in front of a record player and learned how to play 1950s rock 'n' roll.
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If you goWhat: ARTSpeaks presentation featuring Hofstra University professor Peter Boonshaft
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5
Where: Neuqua Valley High School, 2360 95th St., Naperville
"We thought we were the greatest thing that ever was, but boy did we have a good time," the Naperville man said.
It's one of his favorite memories, and perhaps one of the first inklings of his grass-roots organizing.
Now Staley is leading an effort in Naperville and Aurora that champions arts in education in an era buzzing about 21st century skill-building.
His vehicle is ARTSpeaks, a group he founded in 2011 that sponsors speaking events in a kind of TED Talks format. The third such event since the group's inception is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, at Neuqua Valley High School, 2360 95th St., Naperville. Peter Boonshaft, an author of several books on music education and a professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., will deliver the keynote address.
Why is Staley doing this?
He is the art department chair at Neuqua, which boasts a music program that has racked up honors from the Grammy Foundation. Despite the national recognition, Staley has faced the view that the arts should be the first causalities of budget cuts.
Confronted with a looming deficit, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 laid off teachers, including those in the award-winning music program, in 2010.
"There was an obvious need for education in our community about the essential role the arts play in education," Staley said.
Staley insists ARTSpeaks isn't about confrontation, but information. The group trumpets research on its Facebook page and testimony from professionals both in and outside the art world.
"What we've sort of been lacking in is evidence and compelling stories that give credence to the idea that the arts have utilitarian value," said Staley, who also teaches several music classes at Neuqua.
On its website, the ARTSpeaks message is "The Arts create THE competitive edge. People involved in the arts acquire '21st Century Skills' that are PROVEN to be intrinsic to SUCCESS."
He acknowledged that some artists may argue that art's aesthetic value should be enough.
Still, ARTSpeaks, supported by a grant from the Indian Prairie Educational Foundation, aims to build a conversation about, among other things, art curriculum fostering critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. Fine arts faculty from Metea Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools also sit on the ARTSpeaks committee.
"The typical advocacy model is that you tell everybody they're doing it wrong and this is the right way to do it. We're not saying that at all," Staley said.
"In our community, we feel like we're very well supported. What we're saying is that we want to make certain that when we have to make tough decisions in the future that everybody has all the information upon which to base those decisions."
Previous events have drawn a mix of educators and parents. Speakers meet with students during the school day.
"Right now our goal is to educate those who are in the best place to make good decisions for students," Staley said.
Margaret Byrnes, a parent of three students in the district, sits on the ARTSpeaks committee. She is a Lisle-based clinical psychologist who will speak Tuesday about art and wellness.
Byrnes pointed to research on brain development.
"Participation in things like music activates parts of the brain that are not always even utilized without that exposure," Byrnes said.
"So when we keep talking about the importance of having our children developing 21st century skills, the arts I don't think should be considered as something that's nice. They should be considered as something that's essential."
Staley envisions ARTSpeaks as a destination for locals that continues to attract national speakers.
"We're trying to cultivate an interest in continuing the conversation of the role that the arts play in the community," he said.
For details, visit artspeaks204.org.