Imagine a fast-growing, increasingly diverse school district with approximately 2,700 students in grades K–12, located 12 miles from the downtown area of a city. The district currently consists of three buildings: an elementary school (grades K–4), a middle school (grades 6–8), and a high school (grades 9–12). Also imagine the following:
- Because of the growing population, the district is building a new facility for grades 3-5 that will open in the 2013–2014 school year. This building will have a STEAM focus.
- In addition to visual arts and music, students in the elementary school also participate in an Arts Alive class. Arts Alive is a performing arts class that focuses on storytelling; students employ dance, music, and theatre to tell and create stories. Students often comment that they wish Arts Alive would continue into the middle school because they learn so much in elementary school.
- The administrative team—including the superintendent and other central office staff; building leadership; heads of transportation, food service, and grounds; and other leaders—has spent its last three summer leadership retreats at local arts and cultural facilities, engaged in creative arts-based learning with staff from those facilities.
- The middle school visual arts teacher took it upon herself a few years ago to attend a robotics workshop at a local university. With the help of staff from a special robotics program at the university, she now engages her middle school students in designing, creating, and programming kinetic sculptures that use the elements and principles of design.
- Over the past two years, the district has collaborated with a local nonprofit organization to conduct self-assessment processes focused on improving the quality of the music, health/physical education, theatre, and visual arts programs. As a result of that work, teachers in those areas participated in rich professional learning experiences in areas such as music technology, incorporating dance and movement into physical education, and decoding works of visual art. These experiences utilized artists from local organizations and teachers from other school districts.
- The district has received multiple STEAM grants from a regional funder, allowing district staff to engage students in project-based learning focused on STEAM subjects.
This district is real, and it is right here in Pittsburgh.
South Fayette Township School District is engaging community partners and collaborators—designated in bold type above—to offer its students world-class learning opportunities across all content areas, including the arts. The story above is only an example of what happens each day in South Fayette, and partners and collaborators are an important part of the work. My organization, the Arts Education Collaborative, is lucky enough to be one of those collaborators.
Before I go any further, I’d like to talk a bit about the differences between partners and collaborators. I fully (and proudly) admit to stealing these definitions from the director of my organization, Dr. Sarah Tambucci.
Partners are people or organizations that come to the table to enhance a project or initiative already conceived.
Collaborators are people or organizations that come to the table at the beginning of the planning process to create a project or initiative.
Both partners and collaborators have important roles to play in supporting quality learning in school districts.
In South Fayette’s case, the superintendent, Dr. Bille Rondinelli, has a strong interest in placing the arts in a visible place in the district’s work. The self-assessment processes that the Arts Education Collaborative has conducted recently in the district have ensured that while the arts are frequently combined with other subjects, they are also taught as stand-alone disciplines that are valuable in their own right.
Dr. Rondinelli and her staff leverage their partners and collaborators to strengthen the expertise, experience, and passion already in the district. My organization has worked directly with the health/physical education, music, theatre, and visual arts educators over the past three years. These educators have extensive knowledge about the community and their students, so it makes sense to provide them with connections to people and organizations that can share very specific expertise in areas such as robotics, computer programming, and contemporary music.
South Fayette has chosen to take a unique approach, utilizing community partners and collaborators to immerse students in content in the arts and other important subjects while presenting them with engaging, real-world problems.
When we asked South Fayette students to tell us what would happen if the arts were cut from their schools, one student said, “I would leave school with a headache! There would be nothing to look forward to.”
I think the approach might be working.
The Americans for the Arts Annual Convention is heading to Pittsburgh in June. Follow along as we spotlight the city every week between now and then here on ARTSblog. Also, don’t forget the Advance Registration deadline is May 31 so be sure to register before then to receive a discount!