MOUNTAINEER TRACKS – November 2006

By John Bernhardt,

Superintendent of Schools

I worry about the standing of the arts in education.  As the focus of leadership continues to target ‘academic improvement,’ it seems to me the arts have suffered.  To my way of thinking the arts are an important component in a well-rounded education.  Most Americans agree.  Ninety-three percent of Americans felt the arts are a vital part of a youngster’s education program in a 2005 Harris Poll.

Yet, the facts are undeniable.  No Child Left Behind increased emphasis on academic performance, and a tremendous increase in standardized testing in public schools is squeezing the arts.

Federal and State education officials would disagree vehemently with my assessment.  Both would argue that their policy classifies the arts as a core academic subject to be taught by highly qualified teachers in grades K-12 and that standards in dance, theater, music and visual arts education have been provided.

Those positions are true.  But, reality is not governed by policies put into place or standards committed to paper.  Capacity has far more to do with actual results.

The facts are crystal clear.  No Child Left Behind and the tremendous emphasis on academic achievement has limited local schools’ abilities to provide opportunities in the arts.  This is especially the case in urban and small rural school settings.

The school day is only so long.  The emphasis on improving academic instruction has added an additional year of instruction in mathematics and science.  To better prepare our students to meet college requirements at Andes, we require students to take a third year in language.  Commissioner Mills has placed a proposal in front of the Board of Regents that would require a fourth year of mathematics.  These added requirements continue to pinch the available time dedicated to the arts.

In small rural schools, we teach the arts  in two kinds of classes.  First, instruction occurs in areas required by the State Education department.  For example, every youngster must have a certain number of graduation credits in the arts.  Every school allocates time to satisfy these requirements.

The second type of class addressing the arts is an elective course.  As more and more time is dedicated to increased standards in the academic core courses, it only stands to reason that less and less time would be available for electives in the arts.

Some would argue that the stakes are high, test scores are too low, and something must be sacrificed to raise student scores.  I’m not so sure.  Studies comparing students ‘highly involved in the arts’ consistently suggest student engagement in the arts is associated with advanced achievement.  Youngsters highly involved in the arts generally earned higher grades, performed better on standardized tests, completed more community service, watched less television, and were less likely to drop out of school than students who were not.

There is also much intrinsic value in studying the arts.  Youngsters taking classes in the arts are more likely to gain an enhanced empathy for other people and cultures.  These youngsters make stronger bonds with their communities and find great personal pleasure from their involvement with the arts.

At Andes, we feel fortunate to have a quality music program.  Our vocal and instrumental programs are growing with between forty and fifty percent of our junior/senior high school participating in at least one of these groups.  The District offers a basic art program and added an Art History high school class this fall.

But, perhaps it’s time schools consider a new delivery model.  Instead of viewing the Arts as separate elective options, maybe schools should seek to find ways to integrate the arts into daily instruction in the core subjects.  Specialized teachers in the arts might work side by side with regular classroom teachers infusing the arts into regular instruction.

That concept is getting a test drive at Andes in theater arts.  Working with theater educators from the Open Eye Theater in Margaretville, Andes classroom teachers are pursuing theater projects using course content.  Four projects are underway this fall and two more are slated for the spring.

In addition, the Open Eye has test run a script they will be using locally for a production under the label of Bare Bones Productions.  The play Can’t Believe It has been read and discussed in a high school social studies and English class.  Student comments about the script have been forwarded to the playwright for his review.  The playwright will be visiting Andes to meet the students in early December.  Andes students can elect to audition with Margaretville students to create a cast that will perform the play at both schools.

ACS has added a required theater class for seniors this year.  Seniors are learning the ins and outs of theater through games, dance, and other activities.  Under the senior class’s direction, Andes will be staging the Wizard of Oz later in the winter.

As schools continue to commit time and resources trying to improve their core academic programs, it’s important they don’t lose sight of the arts.  At Andes, teachers and staff are working to find new models to improve our students’ opportunities to participate in the arts. ~