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The art of school reform.

Incorporating the arts into a school's basic curriculum may help students in more ways than you think.

We're in the poorest congressional district in the nation," used to be the unfortunate claim to fame of the St. Augustine School of the Arts, a K-8 Catholic school located in an area often called a "war zone": the South Bronx, N.Y. Here, where only one in four neighborhood children graduates from high school, St. Augustine has a new claim to fame: 95 percent of its students read at or above grade level and 98 percent meet New York state academic standards. The student population is 100 percent minority, and although many come from single-parent families plagued by AIDS, crime and violence, they are self-confident, disciplined and college bound.

What makes this school so successful? Like a growing number of schools around the country, St. Augustine builds its curriculum around the arts: music, dance, the visual arts and creative writing. Parents send their children to arts-centered schools because they believe it's critical for them to learn about culture and the arts--subjects often ignored in most schools. They also believe that incorporating the arts engages children in learning and makes them more excited about school. Alternative types of teaching methods employed by St. Augustine and other arts-based schools place emphasis on individual development and other human aspects of education. Where traditional teaching methods focus on merely acquiring information and memorizing facts, teachers using an arts-based curriculum focus on developing critical thinking skills and on building the capacity to organize and the ability to recast and use information to solve problems.

Science classes at St. Augustine are based on experiments and research. There is no textbook. Students keep journals of their progress and illustrate their lab experiments--in effect creating their own textbooks. History lessons come alive through the arts when students recreate historical events, make authentic costumes and perform music. On average, students spend a quarter of the day on the arts. In addition to performing and creating, students learn art history, aesthetics and art criticism.

"The entire curriculum is based on students interacting with the teacher and with each other," says principal Thomas J. Pilecki. "Not all students respond to a computer screen or pen in hand, but they do respond in our classrooms--our teachers and students are excited about learning and about school. In our seven-year history, we have never had a student drop out and most go on to college or vocational training school."

St. Augustine was not always so successful. In 1986, this traditional parochial school faced closure due to low student enrollment. Today, the school serves as a national model of education reform. The principal hires and fires teachers, teachers and parents work together to develop the curriculum, rules and values for parents and students are clearly stated and academic standards are rigorous. To arts education, the school adds instruction in career opportunities, grooming habits, punctuality and self-motivation. Primary grades are nongraded and the school day runs 75 minutes longer than that of the typical school.

Though St. Augustine specializes in the performing arts, admission is limited to neighborhood children and is based on a first-come, first-served basis, not on auditions. The school receives state funding from the New York Council on the Arts to support the curriculum and artists in residence programs. Families pay $900 yearly tuition, $2,000 less than the actual cost of educating a student in New York public schools.

Research has shown that one of the most important keys to any successful education system is parental involvement with the school and in the development of the curriculum. Teachers and administrators in schools around the country speculate that it is easier for parents to show their interest in their child's artistic projects than it is for them to care about formal academic subjects, particularly because the arts are more immediately accessible even to parents with little schooling.

"Parents at St. Augustine tend to be more involved in their children's education because, after all, they are paying tuition," says Pilecki. "But the arts have a way of drawing parents in when they may have been uninterested in the daily activities of their kids."

The success of arts schools such as St. Augustine has served as a catalyst for many public schools to incorporate the arts in the basic curriculum for all students. Policymakers and education experts alike are starting to realize that the arts are a valuable aid to learning. Research demonstrates that comprehensive arts education can improve overall student achievement, help train the future workforce, lower dropout rates, strengthen multi-cultural understanding and help students with disabilities succeed. Several recent studies show a link between artistic skills and school performance. Students who study the arts can improve their performance in reading, writing, speaking, social studies, science and math. Research from the University of California at Irvine found that giving young children musical training stimulates neural activity and expands their ability to think.

"The connection between arts and math is especially strong," says Ellyn Berk, former assistant director of the National Arts Education Research Center at New York University. Berk's research shows a significant increase in students' abilities to transform, evaluate, remember and generate ideas. For example, students who study sculpture and architecture improve their understanding of geometry. In an Oklahoma study female students raised their math scores (from a mean score of 47.85 to 80) after participation in a visual arts program--an especially significant finding in view of recent studies showing that females typically lag in math skills.

"My support for arts education isn't only about loving the arts. It's far from that actually," says New Jersey Assemblywoman Maureen Ogden. "Compare two similar schools, one with a strong arts curriculum and one without. You'll soon discover that there are nonartistic benefits that make the school with arts curricula a higher performance environment. Most important, in such settings the kids are excited about learning. Teachers say when the arts are used to help teach science, math and reading, test scores go up."

Corroborating evidence comes from scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, high school students who concentrate in the arts (that is, students who earn more than three credits in any combination of courses in dance, drama, design, graphic and commercial arts, crafts, fine arts, music and creative writing) consistently score above the mean on the verbal and math sections.

Cause and effect could be tangled here, of course. That is, it could be argued that students who do well on the SATs are by definition bright students with wide-ranging interests or that they often come from schools more likely to have strong arts programs. It has also been observed, though, that SAT scores rise with the number of years students study the arts.

Why then, even with such compelling reasons to incorporate the arts in the curriculum, are so many schools cutting back on the arts? Perhaps because they are perceived as "frills;" spending on the arts in education is small--an estimated 6 percent of secondary and elementary budgets. The arts have traditionally had to compete for limited funds as states and districts face escalating costs. In some school districts, it is not unusual for the arts to be eliminated altogether. While 27 states require students to take arts classes before graduating, or have established comprehensive arts curriculums, many school districts complain that they lack the financial resources and trained teachers they need to meet state goals.

Arts education is also underfunded because in many cases school administrators and state legislators aren't familiar with the proved relationship between arts and intellectual development. "As education policymakers, we tend to hold on to the way we were taught in school--and project those old ways onto today's schools," says former Minnesota House Education Finance Committee Chair, Ken Nelson. "This is a major barrier not just to arts education but to education reform in general. Our challenge is to back off and let those who are closest to the students decide what's best."

One motivating force for schools to include the arts comes from corporate America. Business leaders have taken a prominent role in promoting the arts because they are convinced that the arts prepare students to enter the workforce. Japan and Germany require arts education for all students from kindergarten through high school, and they also design the most competitive products on the world market--a connection that hasn't been lost on many business leaders. Many employers say that they are interested in hiring people who can solve problems and work together in teams. "We live in an age increasingly ruled by science and technology, a fact that only underscores the need for more emphasis on the arts," says Robert E. Allen, CEO of AT&T Corporation. "A grounding in the arts will help our children to see, to bring a unique perspective to science and technology. In short, it will help them as they grow smarter to also grow wiser."

A 1992 U.S. Department of Labor report found that more than half of America's students leave school without the skills they need to find and hold a good job. They lack the ability to work with others, communicate clearly, think creatively, use their imagination and invention and develop self esteem--all skills that arts education helps nurture.

South Carolina Education Secretary Barbara Nielson advocates arts education for all students to help improve achievement and to prepare them to enter the workforce. "We are no longer a manufacturing-based economy. The skills needed in the 21st century can be learned through the arts--teamwork, creativity, discipline, innovation, being open to change."

With help from the business community, the movement toward including arts in education is gaining momentum, especially as states and school districts are involved in major education reform efforts. Policymakers are increasingly convinced that including the arts in basic education can help improve education overall.

"Ten years ago, I'd say the majority of our board was not comfortable talking about art nor familiar with many specific artists," says one school board member in California's Montebello Unified School District. "Today, I'd say the whole board has a new understanding of art. Our district's art program is implemented throughout the entire curriculum. In the earliest grades, we teach children to count colors. Is that not math? Arts is a method, a tool used in many learning situations. You give youngsters a box of crayons in a science course and teach them about mixing colors. Is that not art? Art has the capability of interacting with all other disciplines."

Angelique Acevedo, elementary art teacher in Jefferson County, Colo., does her part to make school a more exciting and interesting place. Her visual arts lessons are tied to what students are learning in math, social studies and science. By creating light-sensitive drawings with compounds they mix themselves, students learn about science. Designing Aztec masks and sewing and embroidering Crow ceremonial dresses teaches them math skills. By making kimonos, scroll paintings and Uchiwa Japanese fans and learning to fan dance, students learn about Japanese culture. Acevedo's goal is to help students learn about their own cultural backgrounds and to broaden their understanding about others. "Art helps kids become aware of their differences," she says. "Their differences are glorified."

Recipient of the 1992 Walt Disney Visual Art Teacher of the Year Award, Acevedo draws upon her own positive arts experience to motivate students to stay in school. She believes the classroom should be a flexible place where students can express themselves and develop creativity. "When I was a kid, I hated school," says Acevedo. "Only one thing kept me from dropping out--I went to school so I could go to art."

Arts education is one way to make school a more exciting and interesting place. South Carolina Senator Nikki Setzler, chair of the Senate Education Committee, says arts education is a chance to reach kids who may be potential dropouts. "The dropout problem has been severe in South Carolina," he says. "But you can reach many students through the arts who were seemingly uninterested in learning."

The Holbrook school district in Arizona incorporates the arts into the curriculum, partly as a means to reach its diverse nontraditional students. Holbrook serves an isolated, economically depressed area with a student population that is approximately 52 percent Native American. In the elementary grades, art is taught exclusively by general classroom teachers, all of whom have attended comprehensive art workshops over the last three years. The Holbrook art program is multi-cultural. It focuses on Navajo art, but at the same time is designed to broaden the perspective of the Native American students by using artists and art from outside their culture. The new approach appears to be paying off handsomely.

Fifth grade Holbrook teacher Rosemary Rencher says she has found that teaching the arts is helpful across the curriculum, but especially during reading instruction. "If you say to students 'Can you visualize that?' they seem to understand and be able to visualize what's being presented or discussed," says Rencher. "I think our children have been watching so much television that they were losing the ability to create visual images for themselves inside their own heads. It's a higher level of thinking they seem to be regaining."

As state legislators and schools sort out their proper roles in reforming education, arts education advocates maintain that the arts can help solve many of the broad problems that schools face such as dropouts, low test scores and poverty-stricken students. "We are not just another special interest in search of more money," says David O' Fallon, director of the John F. Kennedy Center's education program. "We are not asking our schools to add one more class to the required curriculum. If they added everything that education advocates asked for, the school day would be 18 hours long! Rather, we are presenting the arts to the schools as a way to help them prepare students to enter college and, ultimately, the workforce."

Laura Loyacono is NCSL's arts and tourism expert. She is the author of Reinventing the Wheel: A Design for Student Achievement in the 21st Century.

Oklahoma Says OK to the Arts

The arts are not extracurricular," says Oklahoma Representative Sid Hudson. "They're part of the basic curriculum just like any other subject." The Oklahoma Legislature backs up this philosophy with state funds for arts education and included the arts in the state's 1990 education reform bill along with reading, writing and mathematics.

Elsewhere, advocates of arts education may have to convince legislators of its importance, but in Oklahoma, it's lawmakers who often educate the public on this point. The arts have long been a line item in the education budget. At present, $200,000 is earmarked for teacher training and improving arts programs in selected school districts.

Senator Kelley Haney, an artist by profession, says there is little opposition to funding the arts and culture in his state. A legislative study showed that tax revenues from the arts come back at seven times the amount contributed to cultural events and tourism, he said. "That's significant reason to promote them at every level, especially with young people."

Oklahoma's extensive Education Reform and Funding Act of 1990 set new curriculum standards for public schools, requiring that students achieve competency in math, science, arts, literature, languages and social sciences.

The act also requires students to demonstrate competency in each academic subject. "Learner outcomes" have been developed to test competency. For example, visual art students must be able to think, feel and act creatively with visual arts materials, acquire a knowledge of mankind's heritage of visual art and design, understand the nature of arts and the creative process and more. Similar competency criteria have been established for music, dance and theater.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Loyacono, Laura L.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:From statehouse to schoolhouse.
Next Article:Sorting out who should do what.

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