Not Just for Art's Sake

September 02, 1995|By MARILYN McCRAVEN

As I strolled into the vacation Bible-school class, bearing arts-and-crafts supplies, one young boy wrestled a jar of yellow paint from my grasp and clutched it tightly to his chest. ''Do we really get to paint?'' he asked in eager anticipation.

I later discovered that he and the other city public-school students in the class seldom get a chance to express themselves artistically in school. So, for them, painting was a real treat.

Why, I wonder, would the city schools eagerly adopt EAI's expensive computers-in-the-schools program, which has received mixed reviews, and not invest in more $3 jars of paint and music instruction, typically the first items cut in a budget crunch? After all, arts in the schools is a proven complement to the three R's. For instance, learning about quarter- and half-notes through music instruction teaches mathematical skills, too.

My students' reponses are one reason it was particularly troubling to learn recently the details of how a proposed elementary school for the arts was derailed a year ago by city school officials. This innovative proposal was the brainchild of Lisa Delpit, who holds two graduate degrees in education from Harvard University and a MacArthur Foundation ''genius'' grant for research she did in multicultural education at Morgan State University.

Dr. Delpit's idea seemed simple and promising: Start with a group of about 150 students in kindergarten through second grade and add some teachers trained by a variety of professional artists. A typical lesson for a second-grade class might involve a science lesson on the horseshoe crab. A simple observation period might lead to such assignments as having the student create a dance that reflects the crab's movements, or write a brief essay or put on a classroom play about the crustacean.

If the school helped to develop artistic talent in its students, that would be incidental to its main goal of helping children learn as they naturally do: by observation, mimicking and repeating the details of what they see. There would be no fill-in-the-blanks tests, no rigid classroom setting where everyone stays in his seat.

Harford Heights Elementary School, where Dr. Delpit's program would have been implemented, has adopted some of her ideas, but its program falls far short of her vision. For example, last fall the school had several artists in residence for seven weeks. In contrast, Dr. Delpit, who was a consultant to the school, proposed exposing students and teachers to artists throughout the academic year.

Harford Heights principal Goldye Sanders says that with Dr. Delpit now gone to a different state, there's no one ''to do the outreach'' to the arts community that she did.

So why was Dr. Delpit's dream never realized? Dr. Delpit says that after the school system kept altering her original plan (including refusing, on grounds of expense, to hire a program director), she accepted a long-offered post at Georgia State University, where she is establishing a center to train teachers for urban school systems. ''There was no hope of getting what we wanted,'' she said.

In answer to my queries about the matter, Walter Amprey, Baltimore City schools superintendent, last week issued a statement, saying that the decision to reject most of Dr. Delpit's plan was a joint one, involving ''school-based personnel and then approved by Dr. Amprey.'' Harford Heights' principal, Ms. Sanders, said she never rejected the proposal. Eventually, Dr. Delpit says, she will submit her proposal to the Atlanta public school system.

Recently, still clearly dismayed by the turn of events in Baltimore, Dr. Delpit asked rhetorically: ''If we can give schools to for-profit organizations whose only goal is to make a profit, why can't we give schools to people whose only profit is what happens to the children in those schools?''

Amen.

Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's 'Other Voices' Page.

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