Bucking Trends: Expanding the Arts

Some school districts find ways around NCLB to increase student access to instruction in dance, music, theatre and the visual arts by Kathi R. Levin

The arts and music have been unintended victims of the No Child Left Behind Act. Several reports point to sharp reductions in student access to K-12 arts education, yet some school districts nationwide have managed to buck the trend.

These districts, in communities rural through urban, are systemically embedding the arts at the core of teaching and learning. In these settings, the arts are taught as individual subjects, sometimes referred to as “arts for art’s sake” along with efforts to integrate the arts with other subjects throughout the curriculum.

A systems approach to the arts incorporates strategic planning and professional development for teachers and draws on school and community resources to build comprehensive arts education programs, based on the belief that all children should have an education that includes the arts.

But making such a commitment and following through can be difficult while dealing with the federal law’s accountability demands in math and literacy.

“The statistics show that we’re getting disproportionately harmed by NCLB because students are being denied access to music and the other arts as a part of their education,” says John Mahlmann, executive director of MENC: The National Association for Music Education. “There is an increasing understanding on the part of administrators and parents of the need for a comprehensive education that includes the arts, and this legislation seems to fly in the face of that realization. We work to ensure that young people have programs taught by qualified teachers in their schools.”

What are the key components of the arts education programs of school districts that are surmounting the challenges? How has the superintendent’s leadership been instrumental in realizing comprehensive arts education? How are school districts building infrastructure and sustaining funding for arts education programs? What has been the impact of No Child Left Behind on these programs?

These are some of the questions that can be answered by examining various approaches taken by a handful of districts to integrate the arts in their schools.

Adams County, Colo.
In the 7,000-student Adams County schools in Commerce City, north of Denver, the arts have become a key strategy in building academic achievement. With seven elementary schools, one K-8 school, two middle schools and two high schools, every school is a Title I school with 80 percent of the district eligible for free and reduced lunch. About 78 percent of the students are Hispanic.

The district requires fine arts and performing arts through middle school. A significant aspect of the arts program is the requirement that every pupil in grades 3-5 must study a musical instrument. Middle school students take vocal music, instrumental music or visual arts. In high school, the arts are electives.

For John Lange, superintendent in Adams County, the arts are a priority. When he arrived 10 years ago, the district was the lowest-performing district on state assessments. The community passed a referendum to bring back the arts (along with technology, physical education and some literacy initiatives), setting aside a fixed amount of money for arts and music. All of the arts previously had been cut from the curriculum. Since restoring these programs, student achievement has shown an unprecedented run of seven years of state assessment gains.

“I’m emphatic about educating the whole child,” Lange says. “Our new campus will have one whole academy for fine and performing arts.”

Lange believes teachers must “keep the focus on improving instruction so that you don’t have to remediate at another time during the day. We need to get it right the first time we teach a lesson. This is also supported by arts integration — how language arts, math and arts can connect together. In class, they talk about how notes and timing equate to math. And the arts build self-confidence.

“When a student learns a musical instrument, it translates into a belief that ‘if I can learn this, I can do math,’” Lange adds.

English language learners build language skills by looking at visual art. They are eager to develop new vocabulary to identify what they see and to be able to explain what they are doing when making art.

Most students can’t afford instruments and private music lessons so the district provides these. It takes a lot of local fundraising, in addition to grant support. Seven years ago, the district started the Adams 14 Education Foundation to back arts and music programs as well as literacy initiatives. A mariachi program, started in the late 1990s, now performs across the state. Every spring, the district hosts a series of concerts that are the best-attended events in the district other than graduation.

Lange has received national recognition for his leadership. In 2006, he received the VH1 Save the Music Foundation’s Administrator Award for Distinguished Support of Music Education, presented at the AASA national conference.

SmART Schools, New England
In rural communities throughout New England, the nonprofit Education Development Center has been implementing its SmART Schools program, an arts-based, whole-school redesign. In 16 schools in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, the SmART Schools program has realized proven results, producing high academic achievement while implementing an arts-focused curriculum.

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The SmART Schools philosophy is centered on five key design elements:

  • Teaching all four artistic disciplines of dance, music, theatre and visual arts to every student every day — including teaching the arts as discrete subjects as well as arts integration to connect the arts standards and other subject standards;
  • Developing and implementing rigorous standards-based, arts-infused curriculum, instruction and performance assessments;
  • Fostering an inclusive school culture;
  • Cultivating professional learning communities; and
  • Building community partnerships.

Eileen Mackin, SmART Schools project director, promotes a multiple intelligences approach to learning across subject areas. Professional development for teachers through summer institutes and the creation of collaborative leadership teams of 6-12 stakeholders within each school help build local ownership and guide the programs. Each team includes classroom teachers, arts specialists, parents, district administrators and representatives of the school committee.

SmART teams work with professional and master teaching artists, as well as cultural organizations, to design curriculum that includes showcasing and studying exemplary works of art, engaging in performance and/or making of art and embedding authentic student assessments. Teachers learn to look at student work collaboratively to reflect on teacher practice and increase student performance. Guiding questions include: What is culture? What is our school culture? What do we want to be and how do we get there? How do we create an arts-centered school culture?

School leaders give this approach high marks for its impact on both student achievement and school culture. James Halley, superintendent in the North Kingstown, R.I., schools from 1995 through 2007, says he was particularly impressed by the changes in instruction that the program brought to teachers who participated. In addition to using the arts and multiple intelligence concepts in every lesson, the teachers became risk takers themselves and encouraged risk taking on the part of students. The high school moved from low performing to high performing under the state assessment formula.

Robert Vincze, principal of Forest Park Elementary School in North Kingstown, says through the SmART Schools program students become “heavily engaged in and excited about the investigations that come out of our essential big questions. The arts investigate the big questions as much as the other subjects.”

Mackin credits leadership continuity for sustaining good programs over time. “Leadership change is the biggest challenge,” she says. “In schools where leadership is intact, the work continues full speed ahead.”

Los Angeles County
A widespread effort is trying to reinstate the arts throughout California’s public schools. At the cornerstone of this movement has been Arts for All: Los Angeles County Regional Blueprint for Arts Education, a 10-year strategic plan adopted in September 2002 to restore comprehensive arts education — dance, music, theatre and the visual arts — to the 1.7 million students in Los Angeles County’s 80 school districts and the Los Angeles County Office of Education classrooms.

Darline Robles, the county superintendent, says: “We started with five districts plus my county office in 2002. The districts sign on to having arts coordinators, to having a board policy in support of the arts, to having a sequential arts curriculum (whether the school is K-6 or high school) that they will commit over time to allocating district funds for the arts, and that they will also have specialists in all four artistic disciplines, which might involve hiring additional arts staff.”

In 2006, the governor’s office gave California’s schools significant dollars ($105 million in ongoing funding and a one-time $500 million allocation) to implement arts education based on enrollment without any planning requirement. Now the districts have the money, but arts educators are working with the schools in Los Angeles County to use the blueprint for building effective arts education programs.

“The good news in Los Angeles County is that the arts are a prominent conversation,” says Robles. “We have a partnership with our county office and the arts commission, including staff support. We have training manuals, institutes, a county office of professional development, training on the legislative issues and an extensive website.”

“This is a long-term strategic approach,” she adds. “My role is to work with school superintendents and ask them to consider expanding their arts education program, and what can I do to help them move that forward in their district. The superintendent’s role is extremely important. The commitment from the school board is essential so that when they hire a superintendent, they will select someone interested in the arts.”

Local arts organizations also provide extensive resources for arts education in district schools. To help them understand the curriculum, the arts commission has developed training sessions and then lets the schools know which arts organizations have completed the training.

The arts education blueprint has tough competition in the No Child Left Behind Act. In schools struggling to meet adequate yearly progress and dealing with state prescriptions for extra attention to language arts, reading and math, elective opportunities “are going to be minimal,” Robles says.

One key factor contributing to the success in California is the creation of community support groups so there are ongoing advocates for arts education. Robles credits the role of the statewide California Alliance for Arts Education in developing this support.

“The blueprint is our road map. It’s also part of the foundation in the business community, as well as in our university piece. In a county as large as Los Angeles, we have the elected officials behind it. Every year we also have a celebration of what we have accomplished, and we work with the local districts and the local community to get as much press coverage as possible.”

Dallas Independent School District
Perhaps the most noteworthy example of bringing arts education to scale is found in the Dallas Independent School District. Through the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative, all 300,000 students in the 157 elementary schools will have arts education programs by this September. Due to its scope, the initiative has garnered widespread national attention and received funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the Wallace Foundation and a host of local boosters.

Dallas’ three components were identified through a series of town hall meetings involving more than 200 community stakeholders — artists, administrators, principals, school board members, representatives from philanthropy, parents, students, classroom teachers, arts teachers and city council members. The stakeholders were asked to describe quality arts education — what were its components and what leaders should consider when building a systemwide arts education program.

Three major components form the foundation in Dallas: standards-based fine arts instruction, including 45 minutes of weekly art and music instruction; integration of arts and culture with other curriculum subjects, including programming by museums and performing arts groups; and out-of-school programs that provide access of inner-city kids and their families to arts experiences.

Arts integration approaches include having teaching artists work with middle school students to use creative writing, visual art and digital media to express their views of the world. The arts initiative works with teachers to help them position the arts as a resource for teaching science, math, social studies and language arts. One innovative program developed by a local dancer combines curriculum in dance and geography.

The Dallas initiative is an extensive community collaboration between the city, the school district and Big Thought, a nonprofit organization that manages the initiative. Dallas ArtsPartners, a program of Big Thought, coordinates the professional development and programming of the city’s cultural organizations including artist residencies, master classes, workshops and performances.

To make standards-based arts education systemic, the district added 148 arts specialists. What has the community reaction been to putting arts specialists back into the schools? Superintendent Michael Hinojosa says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “When we articulate our quest to become the best urban district in the country by 2010, the community realizes that this is not a hollow desire,” he adds. “The fact that we are focused on the entire child and that we are looking for long-term results makes it easier for the community to support the initiative.”

Gigi Antoni, executive director of Big Thought, puts it this way: “What we’re creating here is a learning system rather than a school system. Not all learning happens in a school. A community, a city, can make a big difference in a kid’s life and learning by organizing community resources.”

The plan over the next three years will be costly. The city and school district are committing $17 million, primarily for staff and teacher salaries. The private sector is committing another $17 million. To sustain this effort to the end of the 10-year plan, more money is spent on direct services for children and maintaining the infrastructure. The private-sector investment drops to about $3 million per year in year 10.

Antoni describes a strategy of distributed leadership, having a set of leaders that is moving the program forward. “We’ve got to have multiple heads so that if one head gets cut off, there are four more to take its place,” she says.

Hinojosa, the superintendent, says of the leadership component, “When it is the right thing to do, it is easy to garner the support necessary to acquire the resources to accomplish the dream, especially if it directly impacts students.” 

Dorchester, S.C.
The Dorchester School District Two, a suburb 18 miles north of Charleston, S.C., has been building a reputation for its high-calibre arts education. The district is the 2006 winner of the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network and National School Boards Association award for outstanding support for arts education.

A growing community with 21,000 students in 20 schools, Dorchester has taken an interesting approach to expanding arts opportunities by creating arts-integrated middle schools and gradually expanding arts activities throughout the district led by Larry Barnfield, the district fine arts coordinator. To attend the Rollings Middle School of the Arts, 5th graders apply for an audition that does not include an academic review. Each year, 200 students are selected to enter the 6th grade class, where they receive intensive training in their area of choice: dance, piano, strings, theatre arts, visual arts or vocal music. Students are selected from various backgrounds, yielding a diverse environment.

VH1 Save the Music Program

One strong source of external support for schools comes from VH1, one of the pioneers of cable television and a partner with AASA on an annual recognition program at the association’s annual conference.

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The school, which opened in 1996, has been one of the district’s leaders on test scores. In fact, Rollings is the only school in the district that’s received an excellent absolute rating from the state. As the leading employer in the county, the district receives support from the community, the chamber of commerce and the state department of education, which awards grants to arts teachers.

The district has received a U.S. Department of Education Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination grant to start an arts-infused program at Alston Middle School. The grant will permit a comparative study of student academic scores between Alston and Rollings Middle School because the former doesn’t require an audition for admissions. The Windsor Hill Elementary School is now establishing an arts-infused curriculum, while other schools in the district keep adding to their arts opportunities, including the Tahitian Steel Drum program at the DuBose Middle School.

Warren County, Pa.
Classroom teachers in the 5,400-student Warren County Schools in rural North Warren, Pa., receive special training on how to integrate the arts into the core subjects, thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination grant program. Teams of teachers work with Edinboro University, the Carnegie Mellon Museum in Pittsburgh and the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center in Washington, D.C.

Hugh Dwyer, assistant superintendent in Warren County, who secured the outside support for the Arts Smart Program in his district, says teachers develop lessons that mesh fine arts and music into writing, math, reading, social studies and science instruction. The program supports field trips and visiting artists as well as continual evaluation.

Although the program started with two elementary schools, it ultimately reached all seven of the district’s elementary schools. While the federal funding ended last summer, Dwyer anticipates the program will continue, based on the district’s history of support for the arts.

With the support of major federal grants and foundation funding, many of these districts also are working with researchers from outside their communities to conduct ongoing data collection, evaluation and research to determine the impact of their programs on student achievement.

In Warren County, Pa., an overall program evaluation has been designed to determine the impact of the program on student learning in the core subjects. In Dallas, the Big Thought organization has released “More than Measuring,” its report on program evaluation.

The development, application and study of different approaches to arts education offers great potential for replication and can help other school leaders ensure their students have access to an education that includes the arts.

Kathi Levin, director of governance for AASA, is an adjunct professor in arts education at American University in Washington, D.C., and former director of the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network. E-mail: klevin@aasa.org