By Sari Levy
Over the spring semester, we’ve been visiting schools (both public and private) and classrooms to see their arts programs. Hardly our first foray into arts education (see our previous report on the subject) these visits do help us broaden our understanding of what schools – and their arts education– can look like.
Most striking – in both positive and negative ways – was the incredible difference in the way arts are approached at different schools. Positive because arts can’t and shouldn’t look identical in every school, and negative because there are clear disparities in the quality of arts programming. Some of this variance is related to the mission of the schools, but even some schools with no stated arts purpose have created stellar art programs. The schools with the most impressive programs all dedicate large blocks of student time to arts, cultivate outside partnerships with organizations and parents, hire and support teacher talent (artists!), and gracefully integrate arts into the culture of the school.
Stanley British Primary, a school that comes with a high price-tag, was, and is, worth seeing. Though they have bigger budgets and/or fewer constraints, private schools have been the models for public schools across the world. If we believe public schools should offer the same kinds of opportunities that the best private schools do, it’s important to understand what those opportunities are, and how we can replicate them.
“We probably spend three hours a day on the arts,” said one K-2 teacher (children remain in the same class for 3 years) at Stanley British Primary, a K-8 private school in East Denver. Apart from the visual arts, drama, music and dance classes, which are separate, art is clearly integrated into non-arts disciplines. A dozen species of intricately decorated ducks cover one wall; elsewhere students created glyphs to describe their families. Painting, sculpture, drawings and textiles crowd every corner of the classroom.
All of the schools we have thus far visited have impressive work to show, but it is probably unsurprising that there is also room for improvement.
Particularly at high poverty schools, there is an understandable struggle to provide excellent arts while simultaneously catching kids up 2, 3, or 4 grade levels. There is no easy solution to this problem and A+ doesn’t purport to offer one. However, we would push for higher rigor in arts that includes clearly stated criteria for quality; public displays of excellence, including crafts in halls and classrooms; and well-executed arts integration when it is part of the school’s strategy.