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When it comes to the arts, are some kids getting left behind? Lili LeGardeur goes into the classrooms to see the big picture of arts education in our public schools.

Editor's note: The following is the first of a series of four articles about arts education in local public schools. In the next three weeks, Gambit Weekly will examine the question of equal access to the arts, focus on the state of music education in New Orleans, and look ahead to the role of local community organizations in helping kids in local schools receive art education.

In his tight knit cap and jeans, Paul Deo looks way too cool to be drawing houses on a chalkboard. But that's exactly what he is doing on a late March Tuesday at Henry W. Allen Elementary, looking back over his shoulder at a roomful of children who squirm and giggle in their seats.

'"There's no regular way to do this, right?" says Deo. In response, the 20 second graders in Ms. Jones' fourth period squirm and giggle more, shuffling the blank paper sheets on the tables before them. "We're going to draw our dream house, right? The house you're going to work hard for."

'His back to the class, Deo draws a list of elemental shapes on the board, a sort of multiple choice of articles that the kids can add to their houses: cars, trucks, helicopters, limousines, limousines with "spinner" hubcaps, bodyguards, a pool with a water slide. The approach fits with the Louisiana Department of Education's standards and benchmarks for arts education. But the children also measure and work with basic geometric concepts as they draw and color, so they're learning math as well.

'The boys, especially, concentrate on the helicopters. One puts two on the roof of his penciled mansion, while another creates a Humvee limo and a regular limo, both with spinners. The girls make houses with plenty of rooms for their family members. Almost all of the children include guns in their compositions. "They're drawing the things they want, the things they see on TV, but they're also trying to make sure that no one takes them away," says Deo, who is writing a book about using hip-hop culture to teach art to inner-city students. "You have to work with what matters to them, what interests them." At the same time, he points out the lines, circles, rectangles, triangles and other basic polygons that the kids are now busily coloring with crayons.

'Only a few of Orleans Parish's public elementary schools have a full-time art teacher, and Allen is not one of them. Deo is here this morning thanks to a grant funded by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and administered by the Arts Connection office of the New Orleans Public School system. The grant ends this year. Next fall may find Deo in a school somewhere in the system, but it's pretty certain he won't be an ongoing presence in this Uptown classroom.

FOR THE PAST DECADE, neither the New Orleans Public Schools superintendent's office nor the school board has made visual arts, dance and theater much of a priority. The parade of superintendents who followed the retirement of Everett Williams in 1992 either fell silent on the arts or slashed them from their budgets. The most draconian cuts came in 1993. Responding to a budget crisis, then-superintendent Morris Holmes cut art and music -- as well as librarians and physical education instructors -- from the general fund budget.

'As the emphasis on literacy and numeracy instruction increased in the late 1990s, principals also lost the flexibility to hire artists. The only consistent guideline today is that high schools must provide a single arts-survey course to college-bound students as part of the TOPS program. This is true even though the state's own bulletin on Louisiana Arts Content Standards, revised for state Superintendent Cecil Picard in June 2003, states that, "The arts -- dance, music, theatre arts, and visual arts -- are fundamental to the intellectual, social, emotional and physical development of Louisiana students in the 21st century. The arts draw on a range of intelligences, aesthetics, and learning styles not addressed in most educational environments."

'Starting next fall, Orleans Parish Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato hopes to bring new focus to the arts. He plans to institute a new, across-the-board arts training program for kindergarten through eighth grade teachers in New Orleans public schools. Amato has already cast his vote for so-called "enrichment" programs by establishing Suzuki violin training for pre-K, kindergarten and first grade students at the district's six signature elementary schools. The superintendent instituted a similar program at his last assignment, in Hartford, Conn., and he's enthusiastic about the confidence and poise it instills in youngsters.

'But Amato wants more. At first glance, he says, he saw plenty of art and music going on around the city of New Orleans and within the schools. Then he took a closer look. Students participating in music, visual arts, theater and dance were doing so because they happened to be in the right place -- or right family -- at the right time.

'"The art that I see in Orleans is very good quality, but certainly it isn't, or wasn't, available to everybody," Amato says. "The engine is not the school system, the engine is the community. The engine is, are you associated with a family that happens to have artisans or musicians in it?"

'Amato believes the school system needs to fill the gap -- a gap he didn't recognize when he came on the scene a year ago with a mandate to raise reading and math scores in order to avoid a state takeover of local schools. "In fact, we don't have a system-wide approach to art," Amato says. "As much art as we see, it's not there because of a systems approach."

'Why care about art classes in a school system where many students can't read? As one answer, Amato cites modern brain research, which shows that certain activities must carve their synaptic path in the brain by a given stage of development -- or not at all. "You're looking at areas of the brain that would normally not be touched, if you will, unless the student went into one of these particular artistic challenges," Amato says. "The same holds true of learning several languages."

'In other words, if a child is not exposed to challenges in the fields of art, music, movement and theater, those paths through the brain simply dry up.

'Several studies also have found a correlation between an arts-rich curriculum and high test scores in language arts and mathematics. A bar graph (2001) from the College Board, creators of the SAT, shows verbal mean scores on the SAT rising in direct proportion to the number of years of arts instruction received by students. Americans for the Arts, the national advocacy organization behind a series of recent public service announcements with the slogan "The Arts -- Ask for More," cites studies that find that children who regularly participate in the arts are more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, be elected to class office, participate in math and science fairs, and win awards for school attendance ( Other studies reviewed in the 2002 Arts Education Partnership report Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development suggest a tie between various types of music, theater and art instruction and measurable academic success.

'Yet Amato shies away from relying on these connections in laying out his new approach, and even arts advocates warn against tying the argument for arts education to the greater likelihood of higher test scores in other areas. "Arts educators should never allow the arts to be justified wholly or even primarily in terms of what the arts can do for mathematics or reading," states a report from the think tank Harvard Project Zero. "The arts must be justified in terms of what the arts can teach that no other subject can teach." A better approach, say advocates, is to concentrate on the ways in which the arts help children become better -- and lifelong -- learners.

'But will that approach ensure the survival of arts in struggling schools? For many principals and teachers, that's the key question. "It is important that we have art at this particular school because art gives us access to a way to bring up our performance and our academics," says Paulette Walker, principal at Samuel J. Green Middle School. "All children should have a chance to experience art. At this age, students are looking for things to keep them interested. Art holds down discipline problems and makes learning fun. But I need to know if art is something we can count on. Will it be funded for a little more than a quarter?"

IT WASN'T ALWAYS THIS WAY. Historically, New Orleans and Louisiana have been at the vanguard of arts in public education. In 1977, the state became one of the first to adopt ancillary certification, which allows an artist with a master's degree or better to be certified to teach on the basis of professional experience as a performing or visual artist. The state also headed the move to adopt standards and benchmarks for education at the state level, doing so in 1997 -- just one year after national standards for arts in education were put in place.

'Louisiana is also only one of five states to place services to students who are talented in music, theater and the visual arts under the umbrella of special education -- a position that helps protect them from funding cuts. The Talented in the Arts program sends professional artist-teachers out into the field to work with those "talented" kids in the visual arts, theater and/or music at their home schools. Even if a school has only a single talented student, the program will send an instructor to that school to work with the child.

'And then there's Arts Connection, the nationally recognized arts education model now in its 21st year. The brainchild of Shirley Trusty Corey, now president and CEO of the Arts Council of New Orleans, Arts Connection pairs an artist with an academic teacher inside the classroom to teach both art and academics, an approach known as "curriculum-based" art instruction. During its heyday in the early 1990s, Arts Connection employed a minimum of 13 full-time artists who moved between a core group of schools. Its staff served on state and national boards and stayed at the leading edge of national trends and research in arts in education. In 1996, the Council of Chief State School Officers -- the national organization of state school superintendents -- named Arts Connection an exemplary national model.

'But the history of budget cuts over the last 12 years has meant a weakening of Arts Connection, too. The program survived the 1993 cuts by becoming part of the federal Title One funding for the district, but that move came back to haunt the program last fall, when Title One regulators told program coordinator Carole Hardie that she had to service all Title One schools each academic year. In New Orleans, that means every public school but six. "We went from serving 23 elementary schools in the fall to serving 113 elementary, middle and high schools by December 1," says Hardie. "That was with the same resources and the same 13 teachers." Her only option was to cut the time each artist spent at a given school from a full semester to a mere nine weeks. The change undermined the basis of the program, which was to establish a significant relationship between artists and teachers.

'The cost of that change is evident on a March morning in the second-floor art room at Samuel J. Green. This is where Arts Connection teacher Dixie Moore helps students create projects such as African masks and American Indian paintings modeled on buffalo hides. She uses the exercises to encourage critical thinking in her students and teach them about other cultures. But before she gets started today, she first must locate the supplies that have disappeared during the last nine weeks, when she was assigned away from Green. She also has to locate her students. Green has been in turmoil this year as literally hundreds of students have been transferred in and out, partially because of the closing of the St. Thomas and Desire housing developments.

'"I love teaching middle school," says Moore, who has been an Arts Connection teacher since 1998. "I tell them art is a lot more than making a pretty picture." Moore brings in college-level texts such as Africans in Colonial Louisiana by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall for the students to use as references. The kids also use the Web to research cultural traditions like mask making in Australia. One computer in the art room is linked to the Internet. But today, Moore is hamstrung there, too. In her absence, someone seems to have taken off with the computer's mouse.

'Another highly regarded program, Cultural Resources, seeks its own underwriters to bring dance, theater and music troupes to schools that can pay its modest fee three or four times a year. But Arts Connection is the only system-wide service to bring arts other than music to mainstream kids, rather than only to those who test into "talented" programs. Nationally, it's been recognized as a model for "arts integration," or integrating arts into the curriculum. In this model, a dance teacher might develop a lesson using concepts from a unit on the solar system, or a painter could apply lessons from mathematics to create a scale enlargement of a drawing.

'But the arts aren't considered merely as a way for students to learn other areas of study. "The arts are there to teach other subject areas but they're there first and foremost to teach the art forms themselves," says Kimberlye Hunicke, who administered Arts Connection from 1985 to 1998. In this setup, academic concepts provide the themes for works of art, much as a bowl of fruit might provide the touchstone for a still-life painting that is itself an exploration of color, form and composition.

'The rewards of that approach were evident at the spring Arts Connection show at the Contemporary Arts Center, where work in the visual arts, theater and dance was on display during a March weekend. The standout piece in the visual arts exhibit was a brilliant conceptual map of New Orleans that Moore's students stitched from donated fabric, using information from Hall's book. In the work, the Mississippi River flowed through the different cultures that came together to make the city. The students chose to sew their piece to honor the African slave women who came through the port of New Orleans, Moore says. Other artworks ranged from New Orleans shotgun houses rendered and colored by second graders to cutouts of Louis Armstrong -- each one unique -- linked to a unit of study on Armstrong's life. Performances included "Cascading Moments," a visual poem created with Arts Connection teacher Kathy Dejean, in which Lusher students danced the feeling of specific words drawn from the literacy program at Lusher. Older students from Langston Hughes Signature Elementary created movement to go with the Hughes poem "Dark Like Me," part of a unit on the Harlem Renaissance that they studied with Arts Connection teacher Kesha McKey.

'Despite these visible successes of Arts Connection, the program is suffering. Recent changes don't allow Arts Connection teachers to team with principals and classroom teachers over time, as they once did. Ironically, at the same time that Arts Connection teachers are now running from school to school, the program -- or at least its offshoot -- continues to attract national attention. The Southeast Center for Arts in Education is currently following classes at Lusher Elementary that grew out of Arts Connection. The study is part of a five-year national project on transforming education through the arts, and Lusher is being viewed as a national pilot and model in building a supportive community for arts education around a school.

'"This is not a drive-through experience," says Hunicke, responding to the changes that have multiplied the number of schools that Arts Connection must now serve. "Having artists there on an ongoing basis is the critical link to sustaining an integrated arts curriculum It is the essential link."

BUDGETS ARE THE LONGEST-STANDING reason given for cutting arts programs. But inside Joseph A. Craig Elementary School in Treme, a small sign in the office points the way to another force that's putting the squeeze on arts in the public schools. "Hope you did well, good luck, thanks for doing your best," reads the sign. It's the week after the LEAP test.

'At Craig, all eyes are on the high-stakes test results, to see if the neighborhood school will pull out of its bottom-of-the-heap "level four" status. Yet upstairs in her office, principal Sheila Young takes the time to point proudly to a mural done by her students and artist Elizabeth Shannon, who spent part of the previous academic year here as an artist-in-residence for the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The Treme Community Center across the street also offers art, music and dance programs, including the well-known Tambourine and Fan program that connects kids to the traditions of social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indians.

'Craig has a choral music teacher and this year added a part-time band teacher, but it has no art, theater or dance teachers on staff. Downstairs in the entrance hall, jazz singer and Arts Connection teacher Betty Shirley is plying her talents as a visual artist by painting a mural with a small group of fifth and sixth graders. The mural illustrates the way basic polygons can be used to create a pleasant, eye-level jungle scene dominated by a lion with cubs.

'In theory, the guidelines for Arts Connection call for Shirley to collaborate with the school's teachers to bring her art lessons in line with what students are learning in the classroom -- and to teach the teachers how to continue doing that after she's gone. In practice, however, Shirley has found that the Craig teachers haven't had time to work with her, especially in the brief nine-week period leading up to LEAP week. Under the new Arts Connection procedures, that's all the time Shirley has had at Craig. So she has worked on her own to connect drawing and painting exercises with state benchmarks for visual arts. She has also worked around a schedule that blocks out most of the morning for required literacy and numeracy (arithmetic) instruction in preparation for LEAP.

'As a group of five children works peacefully on the wall, filling in open areas with rich fields of gold and blue, Shirley explains the visual rhythms that she feels tie painting to the music that infuses Treme. Suddenly a door at the end of the hall flies open and a young male teacher emerges leading a full class of younger kids. The teacher marches up to Shirley and confronts her angrily in front of the students.

'"This looks like it should be an after-school project," he says. Some kids behind him giggle. The teacher goes on, accusing Shirley of bringing some ill-behaved students back to his class and of cheating him of his planning time by refusing to take his students now. "I was signed up for art. I have to have my planning time," he says. He stalks away, leaving a full class of students standing and sitting in the hallway. Shirley has no choice except to baby-sit them while her students paint.

'The encounter might seem to be an object lesson for why Arts Connection artists need to spend more time at a school to gain the support, rather than the resistance, of other teachers. It takes the four girls and one boy working on the mural a few minutes to recover from the encounter. When they do, they start discussing -- hesitantly -- what they learned in social studies during Black History Month. The students seem to have a hard time recalling civil rights figures they studied. Then one of the girls breaks into a song: "December 1st, 1955/our freedom movement came alive/And because of Sister Rosa you know/we don't ride on the back of the bus no more." It's the Neville Brothers' song "Sister Rosa," and by the end of the first verse all five of the mural workers have joined in.

'Asked whether they learned the song in school, fifth grader Deiondrea Powell shakes her head. "Across the street, at the Treme Center," she says. But the supplemental arts program seems to have driven the musical history lesson home.

ADVOCATES OF THE 2001 federal education act No Child Left Behind say that the standards-based system finally levels the playing field for low-income students and minorities. A standardized approach, they say, ensures that that all students master the same rigorous program and achieve equivalent skills. But critics say that any education that is serious about creating leaders in business or society must emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving skills -- and exercise creativity. Richard Riley, secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, summed up the argument in a 1996 speech Endorsing a Place for Arts in the Nation's Educational Priorities. In his talk, he pointed to Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan's claim that American's new economy will be an economy of ideas. Given that vision, Riley said, "this neglect of arts education is simply inexcusable -- particularly because it comes at a time when the creative, communications and cognitive skills that the arts help cultivate are at such a premium."

'In the wake of No Child Left Behind, arts programs are beginning to be treated by some as a luxury to be rationed. Education administrators say that they'd love to have more arts infused into the school system if only they could afford the time it would take away from teaching basic skills. And despite the fact that both national and state standards exist for arts education, what gets tested is what gets funded. Arts are not currently part of the LEAP test, nor are they projected to be in the future -- though state BESE board president Glenny Lee Buquet says she'll bring the possibility of putting arts on the test up to her board in the near future.

'"We individually and as a board strongly support the arts; however, with the low scores that we have in many of our areas in the very basics of reading, writing, math, sciences and social studies, we've had to put more emphasis there and more time," Buquet says. The board encourages teachers of fine arts to work with "core content teachers" to integrate arts throughout all courses, Buquet says. "But we've not been able to make it a high priority when our reading and math scores are at the very low areas that they are. In fact, we've had to put double time in some of our schools so that students can work towards mastery in reading and math."

'Amato is similarly cautious about balancing art with accountability. "Even if tomorrow we had enough money to do all the art we would want to do, the next question would be how we broker that in an evolutionary journey so that people will see that art is 'value-added' and not 'instead of?'" He pauses. "If students just did art for the 90-minute literacy block and didn't do the literacy program, I'd expect parents to be at my doorstep the next day."

'But Arts Connection coordinator Hardie argues that schools that fail to include arts in education are throwing away large portions of human ability. "Not everybody's going to be a lawyer, not everybody sits at their desk quietly and takes notes logically," she says, citing Howard Gardner, author of Multiple Intelligences. "Not everybody is a 'logical-mathematical' learner. You have your Stravinskys, your Gandhis, your children who excel in spatial skills or in body kinesthetic movement."

'The teacher training that Amato is currently proposing would prepare elementary and middle school teachers to incorporate art into the classroom in a comprehensive way. It won't be art for art's sake, and it won't necessarily involve professional artists coming into the classroom to teach the students directly. Rather, Amato hopes it will enhance academic learning by using art to help students hang onto information longer -- as they did in the halls of Craig School with the song about Rosa Parks.

'But Amato also proposes to realize his vision without seeking additional funding. That will almost certainly mean working with the portion of federal Title One funding currently allocated to Arts Connection. Whether he'll try to make art without artists, ditching Arts Connection to work with an outside consulting group that will teach his teachers, remains to be seen.

click to enlarge Superintendent Anthony Amato hopes to institute an across-the-board arts training program for K through 8 teachers. "The art that I see in Orleans is very good quality, but certainly it isn't, or wasn't, available to everybody," Amato says. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Superintendent Anthony Amato hopes to institute an across-the-board arts training program for K through 8 teachers. "The art that I see in Orleans is very good quality, but certainly it isn't, or wasn't, available to everybody," Amato says.
click to enlarge Arts Connection coordinator Carole Hardie says that schools that fail to include arts in education are throwing away large portions of human ability. "Not everybody's going to be a lawyer, not everybody sits at their desk quietly and takes notes logically," she says. "You have your Stravinskys, your Gandhis." - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Arts Connection coordinator Carole Hardie says that schools that fail to include arts in education are throwing away large portions of human ability. "Not everybody's going to be a lawyer, not everybody sits at their desk quietly and takes notes logically," she says. "You have your Stravinskys, your Gandhis."


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