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Summer 2006 Vol. 13. No. 4 Focus on Arts and Schools

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Principals who strive to keep arts education at the center

While maintaining strong programs, they say emphasis on testing has made it more challenging to spend time on the arts.

By by Beandrea Davis on May 24, 2006 11:00 PM

In a school system where shrinking budgets and test preparation pressures are pushing arts education to the margins, is it reasonable for principals to think about building strong arts programs in their schools?

According to principals at six Philadelphia schools with a proven track record in engaging students in the arts, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Principals at six schools – Beeber Middle, Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter (FACTS), Meredith, Powel, E.M. Stanton, and Nueva Esperanza Academy Charter High School – sat down with the Notebook to talk about how they maintain a school curriculum that sees the arts as an integral part of a well-rounded education.

Citing Harvard researcher Howard Gardner's theory of “multiple intelligences,” principals consistently said art education at their schools is about educating “the whole child.”

“People learn differently,” said Principal Deborah Jumpp of Beeber. “When we work with the whole child, kids are better able to learn.”

Principals said the District's increased emphasis on preparing students for federally mandated standardized tests in reading and math has made it more challenging to spend time on the arts – a field where achievement isn't measured by traditional testing.

A number of studies suggest that students who take art and music in school on average perform better academically than students who don't, a notion which principals said motivated them to keep making arts a priority in their schools.

If students are exposed to a solid academic program that meaningfully includes arts, “the tests will take care of themselves,” says FACTS Principal Debbie Wei.

Meredith Principal Stuart Cooperstein was quick to point out that his students score well above the state average on the PSSA, Pennsylvania's standardized test, and he attributed this to the school's strong arts focus.

“The self-esteem students gain from the arts – they take that back into the classroom,” said Cooperstein.

Envisioning arts in schools

Developing a clear vision for art education in schools is critical in building a strong arts program, advised these principals.

Wei said she encourages school leaders to ask, “What is the purpose of your arts program? What do you hope arts will do in your school?” and then let these goals determine the design of the program.

At FACTS Charter School, values such as compassion and community responsibility are central to this new school's vision, which Wei said is to “recreate community within a fractured society.” She added that both staff and students learn about folk arts “as a vehicle to carry types of knowledge that are being lost within the community.”

Meredith's art program was founded to help desegregate city schools during the 1970s and it continues to draw half its 420-student enrollment from outside its Queen Village neighborhood.

Meredith has one teacher each in music, art, dance, and drama, and there are three student performances a year. Students in grades K-3 have art and music twice a week, and classes are split into halves to allow for small group instruction and extra academic support. Starting in grade six, students select an art “major,” which they have two periods a week in addition to their other subjects.

“We're trying to develop an interest in the arts in children who may not even know they have an interest yet,” said Cooperstein, who said he asks teacher applicants what they can bring to the arts program, regardless of their specialty area.

Throughout their yearlong “Cultural Arts” classes, students at E. M. Stanton School in South Philadelphia repeat the saying: “Everything is art. Art tells the story. Everyone's an artist.” By studying thematic units about cultures from each continent, the Cultural Arts program at Stanton weaves visual arts, music, dance, and drama together with language arts, math, and social studies.

“Our mission is to change the narrow thinking about what art is,” says Stanton teacher Susan Kettell.

Ultimately, arts become marginalized unless they are infused throughout the entire curriculum through strong staff collaboration, said Wei. “It won't work if your arts are off in the corners.”

Accessing resources

Principals say that taking advantage of the centrally allocated music and arts resources is important. Beeber, Meredith, Powel and Stanton all maintain a set of musical instruments, and students study with “itinerant” or traveling music instructors once a week. There are now 73 itinerant music teachers serving 186 schools in the District.

Principals also emphasized the importance of volunteer parent support in running a high-quality arts program. Cooperstein noted that Meredith's Home and School Association raises money every year to support the arts program, and parents have testified before City Council to fight budget cuts.

With competing demands and shrinking school budgets causing cuts in art and music staffing, many principals have turned to community partnerships and outside grants to keep their arts programs strong.

  • Powel – a small school serving grades K- 4 that cannot afford to hire a full-time art teacher – has received thousands of dollars from various grantmakers, including Honda, Young Audiences, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
  • Through E.M. Stanton's relationships with twelve external partners, students are regularly exposed to master teachers in ceramics, choral music, orchestral violin, theater, drumming, and other arts. In addition, Bainbridge House – a local community organization – has raised money to support the program for the past eight years, which has given the school's “Cultural Arts” program stability over the long-term.
  • Meredith was recently adopted by the Walnut Street Theater through a competitive grant and has received thousands of dollars in outside funding in Cooperstein's thirteen years at the school.
  • At FACTS, grants secured by the Philadelphia Folklore Project – one of the school's founding organizations – have brought six master artist residencies to the school that have exposed children to a variety of folk arts, including storytelling, South African musical traditions, Cambodian costume-making, Chinese opera, martial arts, and African dance.
  • Modest grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts have funded several mural projects at Beeber, where artists-in-residence work with students and teachers to link arts with language arts and history.

“Whatever we have been able to do [in arts education] has been from taking advantage of grant opportunities,” said Powel principal Marjorie Neff.

But even without grants, principals might still access outside resources that boost arts instruction, said Wei. For example, she suggested schools could offer rehearsal space to community arts groups in exchange for arts instruction.

“Dance troupes need places to practice,” she said.

Read more about the budget challenges facing these principals: see the May Newsflash.

About the Author

Contact Beandrea Davis at beandrea@alumni.upenn.edu.

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