The arts have seen worse days

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At Brownell Elementary School this year, 3rd-graders wrote a play together under the tutelage of a professional playwright—it was about zoo animals seeking their freedom from a wily keeper. In the process, they learned something about reading and writing and working together, all essential skills for a satisfying life. Moreover, the project allowed them to see their personal power to create. “By the time they reach 4th and 5th grade [here], they all think they can be a star,” says Brownell teacher Leola Stuttley. What a marvelous gift.

However, not many school officials see the arts that way. In the 1980s, arts education all but disappeared from Chicago’s public schools as they reeled from their 1979 financial collapse. The Chicago Teachers Union brought art and music teachers back in the first contract it signed under school reform. And the city’s arts and philanthropic communities upped their investment in arts education, moving increasingly beyond the show-and-tell of performances and tours to weave the arts into the basic fabric of schooling.

As Catalyst Managing Editor Veronica Anderson reports, the current school administration’s overwhelming emphasis on reading and math test scores has put a damper on the arts even though top officials are open to them. There’s reason to believe, though, that the arts will grow again. For one, the integrated arts movement has given them scattered but strong roots. By working with teachers to integrate the arts into the academic curriculum, artists are creating broad-based, self-sustaining programs that they can replicate. Arts advocates also have begun to fight fire with fire, gathering their own numbers to prove their worth to jittery principals. And that’s not bad. With tight resources, all school officials should seek the biggest bang for their buck; they should demand evidence of a program’s contribution to core goals. If that pushes artists to be more strategic in their work with schools, that’s good, too. Finally, arts education in Chicago is blessed with friends in high places—Maggie Daley, for example.

Magnet schools, says the ever-blunt school activist Corretta McFerrin, were created “to stem white flight and to provide education for well-off blacks.” (See Catalyst, November 1997.) As it turned out, the Reform Board added an “amen” with its new admissions policy, which requires magnet schools to get at least 30 percent of their students from their immediate neighborhoods. As Associate Editor Dan Weissmann reports in Updates, the policy will have its biggest impact in affluent areas along the north lakefront and in gentrifying areas around the Loop; magnets in those areas will have to hold special lotteries to meet the local quota. Meanwhile, almost half of all magnet schools don’t even meet the goals of the desegregation consent decree that justified their creation. As we’ve said before, it’s time to rethink magnet schools in Chicago. Being clear and upfront about their purpose will serve the cause of city stability as well.

In another controversial arena, school rehabilitation and construction, the Reform Board is moving in the right direction. In December, Operations Chief Tim Martin told the program’s advisory committee that its three-year-old needs assessment would be updated, that detailed plans would be presented to schools and that additional public hearings would be held.

ABOUT US:

Catalyst welcomes two new editorial board members, Arthur Cervinka, who recently retired as principal of Mather High School, and Carol Cyriaque, a science teacher at Coles Elementary School with a long list of education honors and activities, including a Golden Apple award, certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and mentor to new Chicago public school teachers. Also, board member Michael Klonsky, co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been chosen to serve as chair for the next year. Clara Pate, a retired Evanston principal who facilitates two principal networks in Chicago, will serve as vice chair.