Arts get smart to survive

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In Chicago, as elsewhere, the arts have long had to struggle to stay afloat in the public schools. Typically, budget cuts have been the enemy. Now, though, it’s mixed signals. The Reform Board has passed a pro-arts resolution and appointed a cultural arts director. But people’s jobs depend on reading and math scores.

“It seems to me art has been put on the back burner with this system,” says Ted Washington, principal of Randolph Magnet in West Englewood, which seesaws between two arts programs depending on budget constraints. “All the focus and attention has been put on reading and math.”

Karl Androes, co-founder of the arts education group Whirlwind, agrees with that assessment. “What we saw on the very short horizon was [Chief Executive Officer] Paul Vallas saying reading is the only thing that’s important,” he says. “We saw schools completely backing away from the arts.”

Chicago is not alone. The sharp focus on test scores is a national trend. “We are in the age of accountability,” says Nadine Saitland of the Illinois Alliance for Arts Education. “The whole move with assessments and IGAP [tests] is about demonstrating what children know how to do.”

Integrating the arts into basic curriculum

As a result, some arts organizations are taking a new tack. To justify arts instruction to basics-minded administrations, educators are retooling arts education to help teach reading, math, science and other academic subjects.

“Integrating the arts into the basic curriculum has become an important strategy,” says Saitland, adding that it’s spurred in some places by an expanding curriculum. “With so many things being incorporated into the curriculum, arts are on the fringe,” she explains.

Arts groups are working more closely with teachers to bring arts back into the fold. For instance, Pegasus Players Theatre hooked up with Beacon Street Gallery, a Chicago regional library and a neighborhood chamber of commerce to integrate arts at three public elementary schools and a high school. Since the artists have been working in these schools, test scores have risen steadily, says Jackie Murphy, director of Lakeview Education and Arts Partnership (LEAP). “Integrating arts into core curriculum means kids pay attention,” she says.

On the other side of town, the Hyde Park Art Center anchors another neighborhood-based partnership, which draws on the resources of Goodman Theatre, Chicago Children’s Choir and the Smart Museum of Art for work at two elementary schools. In one lesson, teachers at Murray Language Academy in Hyde Park combined science and language arts with drama and origami to teach 3rd-graders a lesson on birds and migration patterns.

Arts integration is pervasive at Brownell Elementary in Englewood. An ETA playwright coaches a class of 3rd-graders to write an original play, teaching them Spanish and character development along the way. By the time students get to 4th grade, they can write and produce a full-scale opera. (See story.)

Artists are even promoting the use of dance to teach core subjects. At a recent Chicago Teachers Center workshop, a choreographer from Zephyr Dance Ensemble showed a class of 10 how to use dance techniques to explore literary mood, pace and symbolism with their students.

CAPE success

A rising star in the arts integration movement is the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE). In the early 1990s, retailer Marshall Field’s funded a report that argued arts education could fuel school reform if such resources were widely available to public schools. The study also pointed out that Chicago was rich in arts resources but lacked a mechanism to link those resources with schools.

Since 1992, CAPE has forged 10 arts partnerships in Chicago (including the three listed above) that match 25 public schools with 52 professional arts groups and 18 community organizations. CAPE-inspired programs already have cropped up in Minneapolis and Detroit.

The national trend to integrate arts into basic studies is propelled by more than marketing. Some advocates truly believe it advances student learning.

“This false separation of arts skills and other skills actually undermines kids’ capacity to learn well,” says CAPE Executive Director Arnold Aprill. For one, arts can help students understand concepts that seem out of context—a major factor in student boredom, Aprill explains.

At one CAPE school, 2nd-grade students used photography and sculpture to study ecology and gentrification. Students took pictures of homes in their neighborhood, then created a scale model of their school and community with recycled milk cartons. Later, the class designed models of new playground space for their school. Students used drawings and journals to keep track of their work.

When teachers and artists collaborate with the goal of making art available to every child, every day, it has a positive effect on the academic bottom line, says Aprill.

Karl Androes of Whirlwind agrees. “As a field, fine arts is heading more in the direction of being tied to central goals. Hopefully, arts in schools will continue to gain prominence because … we’ve seen that kids change [and] schools are more interesting places.”

Research shows…

The arts’ contribution to academic learning is gaining scientific authority.

A research psychologist from University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh found that preschoolers who took piano keyboard lessons displayed higher spatial reasoning skills, a form of abstract thought used in math and science. At the University of California at Los Angeles, another study linked schools with arts programs to higher test scores, higher student motivation and higher community involvement.

And in Chicago last spring, Whirlwind commissioned a study at four elementary schools to find out whether its drama and reading curriculum could improve 4th-graders’ test scores. After a 10-week class, Whirlwind students scored 33 percent higher in reading comprehension than did schoolmates who did not take the course. (See story.)

Whirlwind and three partner schools recently received a three-year, $796,000 grant from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge to create after-school labs to train teachers in arts integration.

Whirlwind’s study has brought applause from arts groups across the country and prompted some to consider doing research themselves, says Androes. “I spoke to a board of directors for a colleague just the other day, and the purpose was to get them to allocate some money for research,” he reports.

Meanwhile, a College Board analysis of 1996 SAT scores found that students who take arts classes do better on SAT tests than those who have no arts coursework. On average, students who took classes in acting or theater production scored highest (530) on the verbal portion, while those who took music appreciation did better in math (532). The average scores for students with no coursework in the arts was 478 verbal, 490 math.

Anecdotal evidence also backs up the notion that arts help students learn more.

A noted artist in Israel, for example, has devised a visual learning program that showed promising results in developing memory and IQ test scores among preschool-age children.

Closer to home, Murphy notes the progress LEAP has achieved with its programs. “In our schools, we haven’t done a formal study,” she says. “But since 1990, as we’ve been expanding arts, their Iowa scores have gone up every year, as well as attendance.”

Trained arts educators needed

Meanwhile, the push for arts integration has upped the demand for more trained arts educators. For artists coming into schools for the first time, the learning curve can be steep, arts experts say.

To integrate arts in a meaningful way, schools need “people with classroom experience, who have created curriculum,” says Ronne Hartfield, director of museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago and a former director of Urban Gateways, the leading local arts education pioneer. “Not just people who know about opera and know about painting.”

Aprill agrees: “It would be a mistake to say, ‘If you do this art lesson, you’ll remember your times tables better.'”

Others, however are more purist in their approach. Judith Dawson, a fine arts assessment consultant of the Illinois State Board of Education, says they would argue: “If the arts are used to teach other content areas, it might help students appreciate the arts, but not teach them the arts.” Dawson believes there’s room for both schools of thought.

Nadine Saitland of the state arts alliance agrees. “School is a place to do both of these things,” she says. “If we really want good education to happen, both of these models should be happening in schools.”

Arts integration has prompted some of the school system’s art and music teachers to do their jobs differently, too. At Waters Elementary in Lincoln Square, for example, art teacher Jose Javier confers with a social studies colleague to plan lessons on Egyptian architecture and on the Vietnam War.

Board sends mixed signals

To the extent that the Reform Board and Vallas support the arts, they support arts integration. In 1996, the board passed a resolution backing “systemwide integration of arts education in the curriculum and in the school improvement plans of each school.”

It also moved quickly to create the post of cultural arts director to oversee a staff of three art and music specialists. It tapped Diane Chandler, formerly director of resources for Muntu Dance Theatre, for the post.

The board also convened a high-powered task force, co-chaired by arts enthusiast Maggie Daley and city Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg, to advise its Bureau of Cultural Arts.

Arts integration is “something that has never been done before [from central office] but something we would honestly like to see take root,” says Chandler, who devises and oversees arts education initiatives throughout the system.

But so far, the board has not put much money behind the effort. Last year, central office set aside $1 million for schools to buy art equipment and supplies, according to Chandler. This year, even those funds have dried up.

Resolutions aside, fine arts are not among the subject areas covered in the board’s academic standards policy, which does include language arts, math, science and social studies.

Under the Chicago Teachers Union contract, the board pays for full-time visual arts and music teachers in high schools. At elementary schools, the board pays for a full-time art or music teacher if enrollment is higher than 750 students. Smaller schools get a part-time arts teacher.

Of the 189 schools that responded to a recent CPS survey of arts education programs, 13 percent spent more than $10,000 a year on arts, excluding teacher salaries. Sixty percent spent less than $5,000. An overwhelming 78 percent answered that they integrated arts into other academic content areas.

Private funding

Much of the impetus and funding for arts integration is coming from the philanthropic community. Alarmed by board budget cuts in the 1980s, funders responded by picking up some of the slack in the 1990s.

One result is that large institutions have moved beyond student tours to work with teachers. The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, has a bigger education budget and more experienced museum education staffers than it did seven years ago, says Hartfield. Millions in new grant dollars have funded a series of teachers arts workshops, a library of arts books, videos, films, and CD-ROMs, and a catalogue that is published three times a year.

A newcomer to the local grantmaking scene, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, added major support at the school level. Recent grantees include school partnerships with Whirlwind, LEAP and the Erikson Institute, which employs the arts.

Ten years ago, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gave roughly $50,000 to arts integration projects, estimates senior program officer Nick Rabkin. Now the foundation gives 10 times that amount.

“Arts eroded in schools largely because they didn’t appear on anyone’s radar screen for school reform,” Rabkin says. Since funders have put money behind the effort, teachers take fine arts more seriously, he adds.

Arts groups also have become more sophisticated and provide better educational programs, says Benna Wilde of Prince Charitable Trusts. Next fall, arts grantmakers from across the country will meet in Chicago. Their theme for the event: “Youth and the Arts.”