At some point over the past two decades, most people have wandered downtown during the workweek and noticed local students engaged in artistic pursuits. This unique program, Arts In Education Spring Celebration, does indeed mark the arrival of spring for many central Illinois residents. And this year marks a special milestone of the program: 20 years.

"In 1984, when fine arts curricula were substantially reduced or eliminated in Peoria County schools, the Peoria County Regional Office of Education responded to its mission to 'develop and implement innovative programs that are not available through other sources,'" according to Project Director Sue Kingery. "The Arts In Education Spring Celebration was conceived in 1985 and initiated in 1986 as the fifth and final event of a year-long Arts In Education innovative grant from the Illinois State Board of Education."

She explained there were many factors that went into the decision to develop the program in 1986. "In addition to the loss of fine arts funding in the schools, students with talents in the fine arts were rarely recognized; schools and communities-at-large tended to support and recognize students with talents in athletics. Students with talents in the arts were limited to performing and exhibiting at school functions, which were attended by their families and school communities. They rarely showcased their talents to the community. Less than 25 percent of adults in Illinois had children in grades K-12, so generally speaking, most adults had little knowledge about school curricula. And there were few opportunities for the community to enjoy cultural events without an admission fee."

The first Arts In Education Spring Celebration in 1986 was a two-week event that highlighted 22 schools from Peoria County, Kingery said. "In the 20 years since then, it's grown to be a six-week extravaganza involving more than 130 schools from seven counties in central Illinois. The Spring Celebration has become a harbinger of spring in downtown Peoria. The courthouse plaza is transformed into an art celebration by creating three staging areas where performances are held simultaneously. In addition to the performances each weekday, exhibits and demonstrations fill the entire plaza and attract more than 1,000 midday diners."

In this 20th anniversary year, more than 130 schools will be represented from seven counties: Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall, Fulton, Henry, and Mason counties. "About 17,000 students-pre-K to 12th grade-will exhibit, perform, and demonstrate their talents and works in the fine and applied arts," she said.

Kingery credits Mary Ann Penn, the project's director for 15 years, with bringing the Arts In Education Spring Celebration to fruition. "It was really her vision of the arts in Peoria that led to the development of the Spring Celebration. The commitment of Mary Ann to this project is responsible for its phenomenal growth and excellence over the years. Mary Ann developed this project, and it continues to be coordinated through the Peoria County Regional Office of Education, enjoying the enthusiastic support of Regional Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gerald Brookhart. Dr. Brookhart's dedication to the arts and to the young people of Illinois has been a critical component of the Spring Celebration throughout the years."

Brookhart said the reasons the Spring Celebration was created two decades ago are still relevant today, which is why it's here to stay. "When we first initiated it-and this hasn't really changed-there was a financial crunch, and what we saw happen was the fine arts were cut. So we thought, 'Why don't we create some kind of forum for the public so they can see and enjoy what the students are doing in public school?' I think it's still very true that, often, the fine arts are the first to go-or they reduce them so kids have to choose between art or music. And that isn't developing the whole person."

He also has personal reasons to ensure the Spring Celebration's longevity. "On a selfish note, it just gives me great joy to see these kids do such wonderful demonstrations and displays of their art. We don't often get a chance to publicize the good things, and it energizes me to say, 'This is what it's really all about.' The Celebration is institutionalized now. I think it's a rite of spring."

Judging by its large following and expansion over the years, the event is a community favorite. It's also been recognized many times by both public and private interests, with awards including:

The Arts In Education Spring Celebration perfectly models a successful public and private partnership, Kingery said. "Its development and implementation result from collaborative efforts of city, county, and state governments; educational communities from surrounding central Illinois counties; international and local corporations; small businesses; charitable foundations; individuals producing the event; and area television, radio, and newspapers. Through their generous contributions of goods, services, and funding, the Spring Celebration has grown in size and scope for 20 years. Additionally, all sponsors participate in the event by presenting school plaques and student certificates at the courthouse plaza."

In addition to Illinois Concert Sound owner Bill Keister, who's provided sound equipment and keyboards for the project since its inception, event sponsors include Caterpillar Inc., Ruby K. Worner Charitable Trust (National City Bank Trustee), Foster Family Charitable Trust, Peoria Tourism Reserve Fund, Commerce Bank, AmerenCILCO, Illinois-American Water Company, Target Stores, Bank One, Bielfeldt Foundation, Associated Bank, South Side Trust & Savings Bank, Illinois Mutual Insurance Company, First Capital Bank, Better Banks, and the Journal Star.

The 20th annual Arts In Education Spring Celebration takes place from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., each weekday, April 18 to May 27, at the Peoria County Courthouse Plaza. For more information, call 672-6906, visit www.springcelebration.org, or check with your local school. AA!