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Arts Disconnection 

Last year, Superintendent Anthony Amato pledged to deliver arts education. Yet teachers and students now face a lost program and lots of uncertainty.

Artist William Jones teaches students at Edwards Elementary. Many teachers say that there is a tie between test scores and arts integration across the curriculum. A pair of teachers who tracked scores at Audubon Montessori School found that students in arts-enriched classes scored better on their LEAP and Iowa assessments than those who did not benefit from such classes.

Last month, after interim Orleans Parish superintendent of schools Ora Watson presented via teleconference the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum (LCC), teachers and principals at Eleanor McMain Magnet Secondary School broke into workshop groups. Their assignment was to make connections between the standardized statewide curriculum Watson presented and the courses they were already teaching.

The LCC is an overarching curriculum designed to get all schools on the same page in terms of what they teach and when they teach it. In a district where students shift schools frequently, a standardized framework is important. But the problem for McMain art department chairperson Beverly Cook was that the curriculum outlined by Watson listed only four subject areas: English language arts, math, social studies and science.

Art, music, theater and dance were nowhere on the list.

Watson's powerpoint demonstration further underscored the curriculum's alignment with the LEAP and iLEAP standardized tests. But arts are not a part of the annual standardized testing marathon. In Gambit Weekly's four-part series on arts in education last year ('Fill in the Blanks,' May 4, 11, 18 and 28), teachers emphasized that what's on the test is what gets taught. That was true even though the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted benchmarks and standards and grade-level expectations for the four areas of the arts -- dance, theater, music and visual arts -- several years ago, making it a requirement for schools to teach them.

'We not only want to make the arts part of the LCC, we need to make it part of school culture,' says Cook. 'We need to create an environment that values art and art-making, the ideas of problem-solving and critical thinking.'

Watson did not respond to requests for comment on her plans for arts education. But a year after outgoing Superintendent Anthony Amato pledged to take the same systems approach to arts education in kindergarten through eighth grades that he'd taken with literacy and numeracy, arts instruction remains an afterthought in the city's public education system. The Arts Connection program that paired teaching artists with academic instructors in various schools was effectively eliminated last spring -- following Amato's pledge to strengthen arts teaching -- when the system failed to include it in its request for federal Title 1 funds for the 2004-2005 school year. Amato did pull together a team and charge its members with developing a curriculum guide for arts education. That team, which is led by Cook, had planned to complete its guide by this summer. But under the current spending freeze, the fate of the stipends that fund the committee's ongoing work is uncertain. And it has never been clear, says Cook, who would teach the arts curriculum once it was completed.

The peripheral status of the arts was made perfectly clear at a March 21 school board meeting at McDonogh 35 Senior High School. Encouraged by board member Phyllis Landrieu, music department director Vondel Smith-Sloan and Arts in Education director Carole Hardie had assembled a series of arts presentations, called 'arts overtures,' that would serve as a prelude to each board meeting. Smith-Sloan says that a range of departments working with the arts, including the Department of Africana Studies and the Talented and Gifted in the Arts programs, had come together to map out the schedule of student performances and presentations.

But when the first group of students came forward to make a presentation at the March meeting, they were admonished by board director Anita Dumas, who said that they were not on the board agenda. Landrieu apologized for the miscommunication. Smith-Sloan, for her part, vowed to bring the students whose performance was canceled that day to future board meetings -- after, of course, following proper board procedure to do so.

At the same time that the Ford Foundation is touting the role of arts integration in boosting the achievement of public school students in Dallas, the academically challenged New Orleans system is leaving arts programs to struggle. And at the same time that Boston's public schools system is using a 2004 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to engage middle school students by combining literacy studies with theater programs, New Orleans is puzzling over the basic configuration of its middle schools, which were being combined with elementary schools under Amato.

'The arts are part of No Child Left Behind, so they should be taught at the same level as every other subject under the law,' says Kim Alan Wheatley, director of the Southeast Center for Education in the Arts at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which trains educators in integrating arts into academics. 'Many of our students are visual learners and school systems aren't dealing with that.' As a result, a lot of kids are not 'getting it,' he says. 'If you don't individualize to their learning style, they get left behind.'

Teaching the arts only in art classes, Wheatley says, is like saying that students will only read in one class, and not any others.

'Howard Gardner says, 'Don't promote the arts as a way to raise test scores, promote the arts as an incredible tool for learning,'' says Hardie, who administered the Arts Connection program and continues to serve as director of the arts in education program. Gardner, a noted educational researcher, is widely known for advancing the notion that students have different learning styles. By not addressing different learning styles such as visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and musical styles, he says, schools leave large numbers of learners behind.

Hardie's disclaimer aside, many teachers say there is a tie between demonstrable student achievement -- test scores -- and arts integration across the curriculum. A pair of teachers who tracked scores at Audubon Montessori School found that students in arts-enriched classes scored better on their LEAP and Iowa assessments than those who did not benefit from such classes. Informal tracking at other schools showed similar results for students in arts-enriched academic classes as well as in visual arts programs and music.

The Arts Connection program aimed to connect classroom teachers to students with different learning styles by bringing professional teaching artists into classrooms to work alongside teachers. For nearly two decades, artists in the program went into schools. Principals welcomed them and artists stayed for an average of three years, team-teaching arts-infused academic subjects. The artists and students also carried out special projects -- for example, they created a dance about dinosaurs that also teaches core dance concepts like shape, rhythm, pathway, levels in space and tempo. The teachers, all of whom were professional artists, received ancillary certification through the Louisiana Department of Education, which pioneered the credit-for-professional-experience classification in the 1970s to allow artists and musicians to teach at NOCCA.

The long-term residency allowed the artists to foster an arts-friendly culture at each site. It also helped teachers embrace strategies for integrating the arts into the classroom by offering them demonstrations, exercises and support as they tried new techniques on for size. Some of the highest-achieving schools in the city, including Audubon Montessori and Lusher School, built their arts-enriched programs on the foundations laid by Arts Connection teachers.

Last year, New Orleans Public Schools diluted the program, directing the 17 Arts Connection artists working at 23 school sites to serve all of the system's 128 schools in a single school year. The shift, which was not required under Title 1 funding guidelines, cycled 17 artists through four schools at a time, shifting schools at the end of each nine-week period. Collaboration with classroom teachers was impossible under those conditions, Arts Connection teachers said.

The district's 2004-2005 Title 1 funding request, which was heavy on literacy and numeracy programs, omitted the $565,000 that Arts Connection had received the previous year.

Last spring, Hardie encouraged the Arts Connection teachers hanging in limbo to put hope in a rumor that the district's Renaissance Schools would be urged to add art teachers to their staffs. No such directive was given to those schools, however. By mid-summer, Arts Connection teachers were pounding the pavement, applying to Signature Schools, Renaissance Schools and any other school that might have a budget that allowed for art teachers.

District officials confirm that the Renaissance Schools -- low-performing schools that were given additional resources in hopes of improving their performance -- weren't asked to add art teachers, though they were given additional funding for social workers to address behavior problems. As outlined by Area II Superintendent Darryl Kilbert, other measures at Renaissance Schools included additional time on task, an extended day schedule, and lower teacher-pupil ratios. 'The focus is on academic excellence,' says Kilbert in response to a question about whether arts might have played a role in helping those schools improve.

Area I Superintendent Matt George says that Amato spoke to principals about the importance of art education and that he's sure it had been dealt with in professional development sessions, though he couldn't be specific about either. As far as an absence of systemic arts education in the New Orleans Public Schools, George indicates that those claims are overblown. 'I've been in 30 classrooms where math teachers were using music to teach math,' he says, adding that he's also witnessed literacy teachers using art to expand on lessons for their students. Signature Schools like NOCCA Academy and L.E. Rabouin, with its Mardi Gras Arts academy, offer other examples of bringing arts into the schools, he says.

In a conversation with Gambit Weekly in March, George, Kilbert and Area I Superintendent Tyrone Casby argued that teachers do integrate art in informal ways throughout the system. 'We're trying to get principals to identify exactly what works for them,' said George. 'Arts won't necessarily work at Hoffman, but they may work at Gentilly Terrace. It's different strokes for different folks.'

Linda Cook, a retired drama therapist who worked with Arts Connection and helped develop national standards for arts in education, takes issue with George's idea that the arts might work at one school and not another. 'That flies in the face of all research,' Cook says.

It's also not the approach Amato's team had taken with other core subjects. A hallmark of Amato's reforms were scripted literacy and numeracy programs that allowed little leeway on the part of each school site. Creation of inviolable literacy and numeracy blocks and the use of pacing guides to teach LEAP and Graduate Exit Exam-tested subjects further suggested that Amato was not shy about providing directives on subjects he considered to be top priorities.

During the Gambit interview, George, Kilbert and Casby offered to send an email to all of the district's schools asking, 'How are you integrating arts into the curriculum at your school site?' The replies brought assurances that all NOPS principals know how to use the phrase 'arts integration.' But more than half of those responding offered examples of using visual art to simply illustrate lessons in English, social studies or science -- rather than extending those lessons to address a range of learning styles. Others commented on how students enjoyed working with color and materials, but seemed to value art as a reward rather than as an integral part of the academic enterprise. Several trumpeted the presence of Talented Arts - Visual (TAV), Talented Arts - Dance (TAD) and Talented Arts - Theater (TAT) teachers at their schools. But TAV, TAD and TAT are programs that are limited to those students who test into them. A concentration of 'talented' kids at any one school brings a resident teaching artist -- and perhaps an awareness of art education -- to that school, but their classes are technically available only to select children.

The most detailed answers to the emails, which were sent by Casby and Kilbert, came from those few schools -- less than a fifth of the system's schools, by Gambit Weekly's estimate -- that do have regular art teachers or artists on staff.

'Cultural arts teachers and the social studies, math and science teachers plan and teach correlated units,' wrote John McCrary, principal of McDonogh 28 Middle School, where visual arts teacher Aleta Richards is on staff.

'Art is being integrated into the curriculum on a daily basis,' wrote Lawrence Armour, principal of Medard H. Nelson Elementary, which hired former Arts Connection teacher Larry Ashton at the start of the year. The note went on to detail a unit combining geometry lessons with architectural drawing and a study of symmetry.

Cordelia Lamb, principal of Oretha Castle Haley Elementary, lamented the loss of a visual artist she once had at the school, but outlined ways in which her new theater teacher helps her students expand on what they learn in their daily Success for All literacy block. 'Through theater, students learn to think on their feet, to draw conclusions from a given set of circumstances,' Lamb wrote. 'Through improvisation, students invent dialogue for assigned literature.' By working together, the classroom teacher and the drama teacher do a better job of assessing what students have truly absorbed from their lessons, Lamb said.

There were other observations. 'During the 2003-2004 school year, we had the services of an Arts Connection teacher for six weeks,' Avery Alexander principal Charlotte Matthew wrote. 'That was a wonderful time, because the students participated in creating murals in the cafeteria and upper grade entrance area.'

'Books and other supplies made available go a long way to help, but the professional assistance of a full-time art teacher on campuses will yield a greater benefit to all,' wrote Andrew J. Bell principal Hilda Thomas.

'Art has not been officially integrated into the curriculum this school term,' wrote Lindsey Moore on behalf of E. H. Phillips Middle School.

In an interview last April, Amato wondered whether the Arts Connection program, in which artists taught students while mentoring non-art teachers, had as much impact as a pure staff-development program might have. But Hardie is wary of handing off arts instruction in a system that doesn't give those teachers working artists as resources.

'They're not qualified to teach art,' says Hardie. 'They're qualified to have a specialist at their beck and call in the school to assist them in teaching the arts, as they learn about arts integration.'

Southeast Center's Kim Wheatley echoes Hardie's concerns. 'Research shows that doing a one-shot experience is great at the time, but it's hard for that to be transferred over,' says Wheatley. 'Ideally, professional development needs to be happening year-round in schools, in the teachers' classrooms with their students.'

Purely by accident, the system has actually added more art teachers this year, Hardie says. Unable to fill all of the full-time positions for music teachers last fall, music director Vondel Smith-Sloan made Hardie a generous offer: 12 full-time positions dedicated to music that could be filled by artists. But the arrangement came with a catch. Each school counts on its music teachers to provide release time for teachers, who use the break from the classroom to plan lessons. The arrangement, called 'giving planning,' means the teachers who stepped into the music spots never work with students when their regular teachers are present. It's the exact opposite of the Arts Connection model, but Hardie had artists to place.

For this reason, music is in a more secure place in the NOPS system than visual arts. Music teachers cover the planning periods that are required by teachers' contracts. But neither Smith-Sloan nor Brice Miller, the district's jazz studies coordinator, have any budgeted resources for providing sheet music, recordings or instruments. On April 12-15, Smith-Sloan presented the annual Superintendent's Music Festival despite the fact that the funding for it was frozen early that week. She still has no idea how she's going to pay the bills, she says, but she couldn't disappoint the kids.

Faced with sporadic system support, those who run arts programs inside the system have learned to make do for themselves. This spring, Smith-Sloan obtained $50,000 worth of instruments from the VH-1 Save the Music Foundation. Miller has put together an independent nonprofit to allow him to raise funds to bring visiting jazz artists into the schools. Parents involved with the music department's Strings on a Saturday Morning program, meanwhile, have pooled resources to keep the elementary-through-high school program alive. As for system funding for the program's instructors, 'We were informed that stipends have been put on hold,' Smith-Sloan says.

Hardie, for her part, teamed with the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) to successfully apply for The Kennedy Center's Partners In Education Program. The duo became one of 12 teams of arts organizations and school systems from across the country to gain entry to the prestigious Partners In Education Institute, which will be held in Washington, D.C. this week, on May 11 to 14. The institute will focus on the development of education programs for teachers, sending both Hardie and NOBA programming manager Suzanne Hirsch home with plenty of new ideas. Without a commitment from the uppermost levels of the NOPS administration, though, it's anyone's guess how those ideas will percolate into the classrooms where students need them most.

As belts tighten at NOPS, art teachers like Hardie are hanging student work in the halls of the administrative buildings on Gen. de Gaulle Drive to serve as a gentle reminder of what can be accomplished by area students. Arts advocates, meanwhile, wonder how much arts in education will be left by the time the system reaches the fall of 2005. The arts, they say, always get the ax first.

click to enlarge CAROLE HARDIE
  • Carole Hardie
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