Pilot program will stress arts in schools

Posted April 23, 2012, at 8:45 p.m.

In its effort to transform the nation’s worst-performing schools, the Obama administration is launching an unusual experiment to pump up arts education in eight struggling schools.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, working with the Education Department, will announce a plan Monday to infuse art, music, dance, theater and other forms of creative expression into the schools over a two-year period.

Officials involved in the project want to prove a theory: Robust art, music, dance and theater can set failing schools on a path to academic success.

“These schools are ground zero for educational reform efforts in many ways,” said Rachel Goslins, executive director of the committee. “Arts could be really helpful in moving the needle. … Historically, the arts have been marginalized as ‘enrichment.’ We’re trying to show that arts education is not only a flower; it can also be a wrench.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the arts have been wrongly pushed out of elementary and secondary schools because of budget cuts and an emphasis on reading and math that resulted from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

As a boy, Duncan played drums in music class, although “not very successfully,” he said. His own children attend a science-focused elementary school in Arlington County, Va., where Joe Puzzo, the music teacher, “has the kids singing and dancing about the planets. He’s got them doing extraordinary things.”

The eight schools in the pilot program also are receiving $14.7 million in federal school improvement grants over three years as part of a program to help chronically failing schools.

The schools selected for the pilot program are in New Orleans; Des Moines, Iowa; Lame Deer, Mont.; Denver; Boston; Portland, Ore.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Washington, D.C.

The arts initiative will bring an additional $1 million in the first year, including several foundation grants, as well as $10,000 for each school in arts supplies from Crayola and $10,000 per school in musical instruments from the NAMM Foundation, as well as teacher training. Booz Allen, the consulting firm, is donating its services to perform an independent study of the program’s impact. And some famous artists, including musician Yo-Yo Ma, actress Alfre Woodard and painter Chuck Close, have each agreed to “adopt” a school, working with the students and teachers.

Children in high-poverty schools have less access to the arts than those in more affluent schools, a recent survey by the Education Department shows.A decade ago, 100 percent of high-poverty secondary schools offered music instruction; today, that figure is about 80 percent, according to a recent federal survey. And when high-poverty secondary schools teach music, they offer fewer courses than middle-class and affluent schools. A similar pattern holds for the visual arts.

More than 1.3 million students in elementary school and 800,000 secondary students receive no music education. About 4 million elementary school students do not get any visual arts instruction. The numbers are worse when it comes to dance and theater, the survey found. A decade ago, about 20 percent of elementary schools taught dance or theater, according to the report. Now 3 percent offer dance, while 4 percent teach theater, according to the survey.

And yet, in many ways, arts education is even more important for poor children because they have fewer opportunities to experience the arts outside school, Duncan said.

“The ugly truth is, in disadvantaged communities, these resources have been disproportionately cut,” he said. “That’s just a fact. And these are kids who don’t have access to private ballet lessons or piano lessons.”

New research indicates that students from low-income families who attend arts-rich schools are three times more likely to earn a college degree, and those who earn arts credits in high school are five times more likely to graduate than those who took few or no arts classes.

“It takes one opportunity for a child to perform and to really be recognized for having done something out of the ordinary — they begin to see themselves in a different light,” said Patrick Pope, principal at Savoy Elementary School in Washington, D.C., one of the eight schools in the pilot, has made the arts central to the school’s turnaround plan: He’s adding summer school for the first time, and it, too, will focus on the arts.

All of Savoy’s 372 students are African American, and 89 percent meet the federal definition of poor. Just 15 percent of Savoy’s students tested as proficient in math on the most recent standardized tests; 21 percent were proficient in reading.

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