Arts Impoverished Photo by Cheryl Gerber
In Uptown's Agnes L. Bauduit Elementary, part-time art teacher William McInnis worked with every grade in the school to weave academic lessons into a three-floor rainforest canopy. Teachers praise the changes in the kids, but budget concerns are jeopardizing McInnis' position at the school.
This is the second article in a four-part series on arts education in local public schools.
To enter Amie Miller's elementary classroom at Metairie Park Country Day School this spring, an adult had to stoop just a little. Miller's class of kindergarten, first- and second-graders modified the doorway a little to go along with its study of medieval history and fairy tales. In fact, the class turned the entry into a deeply arched papier-mache castle gate guarded by a very large, green dragon. The fire-breathing nostrils and outstretched claws extended out over the castle door, making it necessary to duck to get by.
The dragon, Miller admits, crossed the line into fantasy, though it had everything to do with the folktales that figure so richly in medieval thought. She based the castle, on the other hand, on her students' historical research of castle styles and types. By building them both, Miller says, the children discovered a tactile, expressive way to connect with a world far from what they knew.
"History is the central subject, and it comes into play in all kinds of ways," says Miller, who has taught here for more than 30 years. In math, she says, her students worked with word problems about medieval times. They used the computers they share -- one per two students -- to create PowerPoint and HyperStudio presentations of illuminated alphabets. They also chose from shelves of books on castles, dragons and knights to do their reading. During Halloween, everyone dressed in costumes from the Middle Ages and assumed a specific character, like an innkeeper or a shepherd.
"What we want our students to know is not that this person was king, or a list of dates," Miller explains. We want to let them know how, and why, people might have lived back then." She nods at the lockers where students have pasted drawings they've made about the Middle Ages. "My job is to help them make the connections," she says.
Country Day places a premium on the arts and creativity. In doing so, it's in good company -- at least among independent private schools. Promotional materials from McGehee, Trinity, Newman and Sacred Heart schools all emphasize the role that creative arts play in educating their students. That's in keeping with the guidelines of the National Association of Independent Schools, which encourages elementary school teachers to consider a variety of learning styles -- and to assess student progress in a number of ways.
"The goal of a Country Day education is to graduate students who have a passion for understanding and a wish to be involved in public commerce and conversation," says David Drinkwater, a historian who has served as the school's headmaster since 1994. "Our graduates want to have a role in the world that makes a difference." The arts not only increase students' self-confidence, Drinkwater says, they encourage creative problem-solving and the ability to take an initiative. The arts also teach kids to learn from one another in a collaborative fashion -- an important skill, Drinkwater says, in an increasingly collaborative world.
Research indicates that students who are involved in music, dance, theater or visual arts classes are more likely to be recognized for academic achievement than those who are not. The research doesn't clearly establish why that's the case, and some critics say that parental encouragement and middle-class advantages may play the pivotal role in bolstering academic achievement. But Drinkwater believes that the confidence instilled by mastering creative projects again and again makes a big difference in academic performance and testing. "Enrichment activities do have considerable impact on self-confidence," says Drinkwater. "The child is better placed to handle the comprehension that testing detects and also the stress that testing creates. The more self-assurance you have, the better you're going to do in the tests."
Country Day students are assessed in fourth through eighth grades using the Educational Records Bureau tests, and take PSATs beginning in ninth grade. But the private school, where annual tuition tops $13,000, doesn't use the high-stakes LEAP test to determine whether its students can advance to the next grade. Federal and state laws that require standardized testing in public schools don't apply to private school students. That means Country Day teachers don't have to follow state-mandated pacing guides for LEAP preparation -- and students don't live under the constant threat of failing the high-stakes test that determines their own status and the status of their school.
In other words, the students who don't have to take LEAP might actually be getting the best preparation for handling such a test. In some of New Orleans' public schools, students are getting the same kind of training. In too many, however, they're not.
The presence or absence of art in a given public school depends in part on the school's leadership. A strong principal can create a sense of excitement for art's role in education among staff, parents and students. Some schools, including Lusher and McMain in Uptown, have spent years building a culture of support for the arts -- which has paid off in numerous ways. This year, Lusher is one of a handful of schools nationwide to be honored by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with a Creative Ticket National School of Distinction Award for making arts an "integral" part of its curriculum. Other citywide access (formerly known as "magnet") schools that place an emphasis on arts in education include McDonogh 15 and Gentilly Terrace.
Savvy schools that value the arts also look out for "talented" students because they draw New Orleans Public Schools-funded artist/teachers whose very presence in a school can be enough to make other kids curious. Students graded as "talented" can receive intensive, personalized instruction in the area of their talent, which may be music, theater or visual arts. (NOPS does not have a "talented in dance" program.)
Others schools, however, are still reeling from years of transient superintendents following the deep cuts that began after the public school system developed deficits in 1990. Many have yet to recover from 1993, when Orleans Parish cut all art and music programs from its general fund request from the state. Only three programs -- Arts Connection, Cultural Resources and the Talented in the Arts program -- survived at the system level. Six years ago, achievement targets on LEAP put a new premium on standardized test scores.
An even harsher reality confronts New Orleans educators: poverty. As of October 2002, 78 percent of students in the public school system qualified for free or reduced lunches, a standard measure of poverty in school systems. Of the system's 125 schools, only 12 have a majority of students whose family incomes exceed federal guidelines for Title I funding, the government program that provides educational assistance to at-risk children. Because public schools have the job of educating all the children in a community, the system must find strategies that succeed with children from the city's poorest familes. Frequently, art comes up on the short list of those strategies.
One such strategy, however, has transformed a stairwell in Uptown's Agnes L. Bauduit Elementary into a three-level rainforest. Part-time art teacher William McInnis worked with every grade at Bauduit to weave academic lessons into the tiered canopy, which students created from brown paper, poster paint and some cast-off cardboard tubes. As part of their science unit on reptiles, fourth-grade boys in special-education classes turned garden hose strips into snakes -- a lesson they further explored by visiting the jaguar jungle at the Audubon Zoo. The second grade tackled insects. All the classes studied the rainforest and helped teacher Kim Winder write placards explaining different parts of the ecosystem. Even the pre-K and kindergarten classes got involved, creating their own mini-rainforest in the foyer of their annex building. Personal computers and PowerPoint software aren't part of this school's art curriculum.
"Every class is an expert in some aspect of the rainforest, from snakes to insects to frogs to butterflies, and they're prepared to talk about it," says McInnis, an architectural painter who first came to the school last year through the Arts Connection program. During the school's open house on Thursday, May 13, the students will guide visitors through the homemade rainforest, perform their own "rainforest rap" and even offer rainforest foods in a rainforest cafe.
The approach at this Title I inner-city school is remarkably similar to that at Country Day, but there's a different sense of urgency. Literacy coach Missy Forcier, who's been at Bauduit for 13 years, and fourth-grade teacher Lucy Chaix, who's been here for seven years, say that their students come to school with markedly different backgrounds than those of most middle-class kids. They're determined to help those children succeed in school as well as on standardized tests. These teachers -- along with principal Eileen Williams -- say that McInnis' work makes their job easier.
"The rainforest project brings language to life," say Forcier. "This is giving them vocabulary. There's a connection for them, and comprehension is based in connection." The art lessons complement the structure of the Success for All literacy program that the school adopted this year, Forcier says. It also gives them a new way to connect with the things they see when they visit the zoo under the school's partnership program with Audubon Nature Institute. "They're using rainforest words when they visit the zoo," Forcier observes.
Chaix agrees that connecting to experience is essential to learning. "Our students have to make a connection with their own experience, or else it's in one ear and out the other. They don't retain it."
Williams says that a workshop held at the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans last year helped her understand the dynamic of generational poverty as it affects young kids. Centered on the work of researcher Ruby Payne, the workshop exposed some of the unfounded assumptions, or "hidden rules," implicit in education: lessons learned in school will automatically be reinforced in the home; scolding or discipline will cause a child to think about changing behavior. In fact, children of poverty react to threats and scolding by tuning out and shutting down, Payne found.
Other cognitive differences come up in homes where poverty is a legacy and a culture, says drama therapist Linda Cook. Under the auspices of the Arts Connection program, Cook will teach a version of the "Children of Poverty" workshop to 120 public elementary school teachers later this month. At the most fundamental levels, Cook says, impoverished children come to their first day of pre-K with fewer words and a shorter attention span than do middle-class children. Developing the ability to see words as mental pictures, learning to string them together into sequences, and sorting out facts from details, are all basic cognitive functions that teachers can address by incorporating art, movement and creative hands-on projects into their methods. Instead, most educators assume their students have these basic building blocks, says Cook. She and other teachers interviewed for this article fear that this assumption causes too many poor children to be shuffled off into special education classes.
"If students do not connect emotionally with the material, they do not learn," says Cook. "Arts are the link in making that connection."
Cook saw that connection work in her own classrooms during 10 years as an Arts Connection instructor. As a drama teacher at New Orleans Alternative High School for the last four years, she's seen it work with what may be the city's most at-risk population -- students who have been expelled from other schools. In the last few months, she and social studies teacher Keith Bartlett have taken those students on emotional journeys to other times by having them create biographies and scripts for 19th century immigrants, Harlem Renaissance artists and a number of other historical characters. "They need to touch it, to feel it -- that's the messenger," says Cook. "Through the arts, they receive the information. It has to touch the emotions to actually connect."
"They're so caught up in the here and now of their own struggle that they often don't feel the situation of others," says Bartlett. Out of his class of nine kids, he says, five have actually seen a murder. All of them knew someone who had been killed -- as well as several more who were incarcerated. Team-teaching with Cook has been a "revelation" into the way arts can get through to kids who have a hard time connecting schooling to that reality, he says.
"There's a hopelessness," says Cook. "Many don't expect to live long. There's a feeling of, This is how my life will have to be.' They see so little. That's what the arts do -- allow you to see possibilities."
New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato has pledged to train kindergarten through 8th grade teachers to use the arts in the classroom. Critics are already saying that it won't be possible to teach art without bringing working artists like McInnis into the schools. But the present system often leaves principals without support or resources for arts programs. Even Lusher functions without a full-time visual art teacher. Robert Russa Moton Elementary in the Desire neighborhood chose to become a performing arts and technology "signature" school last fall, but it went through the year without a single artist or art teacher on its staff. Those schools that do have art teachers, meanwhile, have no assurance they'll be able to keep them.
At Bauduit, during a Wednesday afternoon planning session with teachers, the library rings with praise for McInnis and his rainforest project. "Did you know there are more than 10,000 types of figs in the rainforest?" kindergarten teacher Marilyn Edwards asks. "I didn't know that until Mr. McInnis started this project." But then the brainstorming turns somber. Williams tells the teachers that she may not be allowed to keep McInnis or her French teacher, Fabienne Wuychens, because of budgetary concerns. The group's task is to draft a letter telling district officials how the artist and the French teacher help Bauduit reach its students.
"He touches every learning style," says kindergarten teacher Renese Jackson of McInnis. "It's amazing because kids who may have been having behavior problems sit calmly when he comes."
Chaix says that students told her they remembered what "parallel" and "horizon" meant during the LEAP test because McInnis connected them with visuals. "Patterns are a big concept in memorization, and William shows them patterns," offers Kim Winder. "He makes history come alive," adds sixth-grade teacher Gloria Batiste-Blade. Several teachers add that the creative work McInnis and his students realized in the hallways and stairwells -- along with a series of cave paintings on the third floor -- makes the building a more creative place for learning.
McInnis, a tall man who once headed a private Christian academy, ducks his head modestly as the ideas pour out. It's a gratifying review. It's also the kind of meeting --and the kind of uncertainty -- a private school staff would not likely face. At press time, the district had still not confirmed whether Bauduit would be able to keep its art teacher during the coming year. "I never had an art teacher until last year," says Bauduit principal Eileen Williams. "I never knew what having one could do for my kids." &127;