Joan Weber

My friend Larry used to be the coordinator of fine arts for an urban school district. There was no other staff in the office. He was the fine arts division for 85,000 students. As happens, he missed the connection with students that isn’t afforded regularly to central administration.

So, he went back into a school and became a vice principal, choosing a school that was struggling with all indicators: test scores, enrollment, school climate, suspensions, and so on.

Larry went to this school specifically because the system decided to transform the school through the arts. Beginning this fall, he will be the artistic director for the city’s first middle school for the arts.

The building is one of the most historic schools in the city. Great city leaders came from this school. The city talks of the “glory days” that once reigned when the arts were honored and students succeeded and the school system believes that the school will be saved through the arts.

The structure of the new school is interesting. The students enter the school through choice, not audition. They receive training in all arts disciplines in grade six before declaring a specialty in grade seven or eight.  The school day lasts until 5:00 p.m. with arts specialties explored in the extended day to allow for strong scope and sequence.  It provides concentrated time to acquire arts skills sequentially and also allows for more student choice for all the other subject areas that get cut from the regular day (foreign languages, physical education, etc.).

Keeping kids in the building may also contribute to greater stability in the neighborhood.  The school becomes a hub of activity seven days a week. However, because the school allows citywide enrollment, I wonder what will happen to its status now as a “neighborhood school.” Our city is losing those as free-market educational choice takes hold.

Larry has a huge job ahead of him. There is very little discipline in the school right now. Teachers spend more time on classroom management than they do on content. However, over the last year, as more arts classes have been added, students have become more engaged with the building.

I have been working with this school for three years now and have met with five principals. During that period. The school has been “zeroed out” twice. Over the next several years, I look forward to seeing what happens, especially as other cities are looking to this approach, as well. For example, Cincinnati will be opening the first K-12 arts school this fall.

Could this model be successful?

Do you have any advice for Larry?

2 Responses to “A Middle School for the Arts: Can the Arts Save a School?”

  1. KarenDC says:

    Back in the early 1970s, a project called IMPACT: Interdisciplinary Model Programs in the Arts for Children and Teachers was developed, funded (?!?!) and evaluated. The report is here:
    http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/36/93/99.pdf

    Many lessons are hinted at in this report, but here are some recommendations for school personnel:

    1. Beware of outside consultants who do not know the community or local issues

    2. Make sure arts teachers deal with the entire school, culture and curriculum, and make sure classroom teachers work with the arts specialists (do not treat arts classes as their own planning time)

    I will add that of the five arts-infused schools in Project IMPACT, one program went on because the parents saw their kids performing from the get-go and the PTA took on funding arts specialists after the project ended. This was a suburban school, but seeing kids perform from an early point is a way to engage the community. Another school from IMPACT developed an entire curriculum of teaching all subjects through the arts (arts integration’s ground zero, IMHO), and it included all the arts (even dance!). At the third grade level, the students in this school tested below other students on standardized tests (possibly because they were not willing to deal with standardized anything and/or were not prepared for these types of tests). At the 8th grade level, these students’ test scores were in line with their peers at other schools. By the 11th grade, however, the arts students, who were all mixed in with their peers at a regional highschool since the arts school only went to 8th grade, were SIGNIFICANTLY ahead of their peers.

    These stats are critical because the arts provide a SLOWER and DEEPER skill set. And we are not a patient country. Everyone involved with this new school program needs to understand that test scores really only measure test scores, and student engagement, manipulation of materials creatively, refinement of performance are equally valid measures of student success and will pay off down the road.

  2. Joan Weber says:

    Note from author: Cincinnati is expanding its current grades 4-12 school for the arts to include k-3.

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