#WeAllDeserveArts: Rhoda Bernard – Founding Managing Director, Berklee Institute for Arts Education & Special Needs

June 15, 2021

I grew up in Randolph, Massachusetts, just twelve miles south of Boston. The arts have been an important part of my life for longer than I can remember. My family tells me that I sang before I spoke – and that says quite a bit, since I am someone who likes to talk! I started singing early, and I have been making music ever since.

Experiencing the arts was a big part of my life when I was growing up. My parents, neither of whom were artists themselves, had a deep love for the arts. They took me to many plays, concerts, exhibits, and performances – in local community venues, in Boston, and elsewhere. They used to joke that this was the only way to get me to stop talking or singing!

Private lessons were where I received much of my early formal arts education – piano lessons began when I was 10, and voice lessons when I was 12. My public school arts education was primarily in music, and I remember great times in chorus and general music. One highlight was singing the solo, “Tiptoe through the Tulips” at a big fourth grade concert. By the time I got to middle school, I was participating in state-wide choral festivals and competitions.

As a middle school student, I could not wait to start high school. At that time, Randolph High School had an outstanding music program and an award-winning drama program. Concerts and theater productions at Randolph High School were the talk of our small town. Leads and soloists were Randolph celebrities. I wanted nothing more than to be a part of all of it.

Then the voters in Massachusetts – including my parents, much to my dismay – passed Proposition 2 ½.

Proposition 2 ½, modeled after Proposition 13 in California, is a law that remains on the books in Massachusetts today. Among other things, the law places a 2 ½ percent ceiling on the annual increase in property taxes in any Massachusetts city or town. And of course, property taxes fund public schools.

When Proposition 2 ½ went into effect, severe cuts were made across Massachusetts, and Randolph was no exception. Many programs and services were abolished. Numerous teaching positions were cut or eliminated. Sadly, music and drama at Randolph High School were cut.

The first week of school, the former high school chorus teacher called a meeting at the Papa Gino’s across the street. She told us that her high school position was eliminated, but that she did not want our music education to suffer. She asked for our help.

We mobilized.

We found other places, like churches and community centers, to hold auditions and rehearsals outside of school time and away from school grounds. Our teacher adamantly would not accept payment, so we bartered. We cleaned up her lawn. We ran errands for her. We helped her organize her files. We babysat her children.

We also became music education advocates. We performed at School Committee meetings. We lobbied Town Meeting Members. We created petitions. We sang at grocery stores. We knocked on doors.

So much of who I am and what I value today traces back to those years in Randolph. I have devoted my life to the arts and arts education. I carry on the tradition that my parents started with me and attend every exhibit, concert, play, and performance that I can. I continued my musical studies with a degree in Jazz Voice Performance, and I play the piano and sing professionally as often as my “day job” permits. And that day job? It is all about making the arts and arts education accessible to all people. I earned my doctorate in Education and am driven by the core belief that arts education is a fundamental human right. Or as we say at the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, Arts Better the Lives of Everyone.

What does #WeAllDeserveArts look like for me today? I created and lead an organization that:

  • Provides high quality, sequential arts education programs to people with disabilities ages 3-93 because We All Deserve Arts.
  • Provides exceptional graduate programs and courses for arts educators to better prepare them to reach every student because We All Deserve Arts.
  • Provides individuals in the field (artists, arts educators, administrators, students, parents, community members) with innovative Professional Development Programs and Resources about teaching the arts to individuals with disabilities because We All Deserve Arts.

I know what it is like to lose arts education opportunities. Without the dedication of my music teacher and the mobilization of the students, I would not have had a high school music education. Arts education should not be vulnerable. Arts education should not be only for certain students or certain populations. Arts education is essential. We All Deserve Arts.


Rhoda Bernard, Ed.D. is the Founding Managing Director of the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, a catalyst for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of visual and performing arts education. She holds a Bachelor of Arts cum laude in Government from Harvard University, a Bachelor of Music with academic honors in Jazz Voice from New England Conservatory, and a Master of Education and Doctor of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Bernard has published many articles and book chapters, and she regularly presents keynote presentations and research at conferences and provides professional development workshops for educators around the world. She is a vocalist and pianist who specializes in jazz music and Jewish music in Yiddish and Hebrew.

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