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Why Teach the Arts?

A comprehensive approach to arts would pair working artists with teachers inside the schools.


In the school year just ended, John F. Kennedy Senior High School choral music teacher Jennifer Baronne coaxed her students to stage Romeo and Juliet as a "hiphopera." Jazz studies coordinator Brice Miller encouraged a jazz band at Warren Easton citywide access school. Agnes L. Bauduit art teacher William McInnes turned his school's stairwell into a rainforest, and teacher Kathy Dejean had students at Robert Mills Lusher extension create a dance from their vocabulary lessons.

At every turn inside the New Orleans Public School system, you can find heroes working tirelessly to make sure students have access to the arts as part of their education. What you won't find, however, is a system-wide approach to making the arts integral to every child's education. That remains the case even though research strongly suggests that arts integration increases academic performance for all children -- especially those who come from impoverished backgrounds. By the New Orleans Public School system's own figures, 77 percent of public school students in the city qualify for free or reduced lunch, a standard measure of poverty in school systems.

Yet at the same time that private schools are increasingly touting arts education as a way to create critical thinkers and leaders, the New Orleans public school system is letting arts education languish. Arts Connection, the prize-winning staff development program that pairs artists with classroom teachers, has been reduced to a series of roaming short-term residencies. The music program, though better staffed, is stretched thin, and the dearth of solid elementary and middle school music instruction gives high school band leaders and choral directors little to build on. Daily literacy and numeracy blocks mean that artists in residence have to struggle to find a time when students are free to work with them. And field trips to museums? Until after LEAP tests in March, teachers say, you can forget it.

Schools shouldn't let required high-stakes tests serve as an excuse for sweeping arts education out of classrooms. If this happens, we face a dual system in which private schools build leaders capable of creative self-expression and problem-solving, while public schools marginalize such skills. The unfairness of such a split is especially notable during the 50th anniversary year of Brown v. Board of Education. Will arts become the new dividing line between "separate but equal" educational systems?

Some educators think that's already the case. Matthew Schwarzman, project director for nonprofit educational group Building the Code, believes art is a tool that students can use to change their communities. But he also knows his approach runs counter to conventional educational theory. "Arts are not a decorative sidebar but a key to social change," says Schwarzman.

"The purpose of Brown v. Board of Education was not to integrate, but to create high-quality education for everyone," says Jim Randels, co-director of Students at the Center, an elective writing program that urges students to use creative writing as a way to explore and address problems in their communities. "You should have high-quality arts instruction in every school. It should be clearly articulated and understood as part of the faculty's mission that there is a connection between arts and academics. And that has to come from the state and the city."

This doesn't mean sacrificing academics -- even in an era of high-stakes testing. "People ask me, 'How can you prepare for the LEAP test and still teach arts?'" says Lusher principal Kathy Riedlinger, whose arts program was recently honored by the Kennedy Center. "And I ask them, 'How can you prepare for the LEAP test and not do the arts?'"

The idea that such a culturally rich place as New Orleans should deprive its students of visual art, theater and dance is self-defeating. Superintendent Anthony Amato has pledged to train his K-8 teachers to integrate arts into the classroom, though it's still not clear just how he'll do that. Adding token art activities to the list of things teachers must do to be "accountable" won't address the problem. What's needed is a comprehensive approach that pairs working artists with teachers inside the schools, integrating arts with other lessons. The system already has an excellent resource for doing that in Arts Connection. The Louisiana Alliance for Arts Education's summer institute in Baton Rouge and The Southeast Center for Arts in Education in Chattanooga, Tenn., offer excellent additional resources for training teachers. Nonprofit groups such as Young Audiences and KID smART have stepped forward to offer sustained, integrated partnerships with local artists and arts groups. But for the arts to take hold inside the local public school culture, it will take a strong mandate from the top. As another school year draws to a close, art and music teachers across the system shouldn't have to wonder if they'll have jobs in the fall. Nor should the arts come down to a few heroes making great art. If given a place at the center of the curriculum, the arts can help transform all public schools into great schools.

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