Saving Kids at the Arts School

GLENN McNATT

June 12, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

Last Sunday I had the privilege of delivering the commencement address at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

One always wants to say something uplifting on such occasions, but basically I had to tell these hopeful graduates the truth:

If the public schools continue to strip arts education from the curriculum, eventually there won't be any audience left for what they do, because no one will have been taught to understand or appreciate the arts.

I also told them that they could make a difference by becoming advocates for the arts and arts education as well by as making careers as practicing performing and visual artists.

In preparing my little talk I went back and reread the report published last December by the Baltimore Community Foundation, which analyzed the same subject. Among other things, the report praised the Baltimore School for the Arts as a model institution for the way it integrates arts and academic education.

Over the years I have had many occasions to observe how the school deals with talented children who may not necessarily have strong academic skills, and who in some cases may even enter with serious learning disabilities.

The school accepts applicants based solely on talent. Yet it often happens that artistic talent and academic proficiency seem to go hand in hand.

In the case of violinists and pianists, for example, early nurturing is essential to develop the fine motor skills needed to excel on those instruments. The type of parents likely to recognize and nurture such talent are also the ones most likely to read to their children, help them with their homework and generally take a strong interest in every aspect of their intellectual and emotional development. So when these kids come to school, they're generally already well prepped.

That's not always the case with other kinds of talent, however. Visual artists, singers and dancers may or may not come from ideal home situations where loving parents lavish care and attention on them. Those who aren't so fortunate are just as likely to have academic problems as kids in regular high schools.

Over the years, the School for the Arts has discovered that a number of children it accepted because they could dance, sing or paint turned out to have severe academic deficiencies once they arrived -- problems so serious they almost certainly would have been assigned to a special-education class had they enrolled at a regular city high school.

Yet a recent report by the citizens' group ''Students First'' described in depressing detail the dismal record of special-education programs in Baltimore's public schools. The group charged that special education as presently constituted essentially writes off any kid who proves difficult to teach or to discipline.

That's also been my own observation in the city's zoned high schools. Despite the extra money the school system pours into its special-education programs, kids with serious learning disabilities or behavior problems usually end up falling by the wayside.

One of the minor miracles of the School for the Arts is that the staff there has been able to save so many of these kids.

They have found that the performance of virtually all these students can be turned around with individual attention and proper guidance. Rather than become discouraged and drop out, most of the students have prospered and gone on to successful college and professional careers.

The school's achievement in this area certainly was evident among the graduating class I addressed Sunday. Of the 70 kids in the senior class, 67 received their diplomas that afternoon. The remaining three will get theirs in the fall after they complete a summer-school course.

That's a 100 percent graduation rate. Even more amazing was the fact that these were largely the same kids who entered the school as sophomores three years ago. That makes the dropout rate at the school virtually zero.

What seems to account for School for the Arts' success is a belief that students with serious problems can be helped, coupled with competent, commited teachers and administrators and a well thought out plan for bringing out the best in every child. That's more than a model for success, it's a lesson every city school could learn from.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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