Not a frill, instruction in music, the arts should be enhanced in the city's schools

January 07, 1996|By GLENN McNATT

I AM CONSTANTLY amazed by the misguided prejudice, common even among educators, that music and the arts are nonessential frills that can be eliminated without significantly lowering a school system's overall academic quality.

Many studies have suggested that early music instruction serves an important integrative function in the schooling of young children. Such instruction has been shown to encourage the development of vital learning skills like attentiveness, concentration and discipline, as well as to nurture children's ability to express themselves, both verbally and nonverbally.

So one would think that any discussion of public education reform would make arts instruction a high priority. But just the opposite has happened.

As the crisis in urban education has deepened over the last two decades, schools have responded by slashing art and music instruction to the point where once-vibrant programs have all but disappeared. Meanwhile, the vaunted "back to basics" approach that focuses almost exclusively on development of reading and mathematical skills has proven a hollow formula that is failing millions of children every year.

That is why the creation of a small, experimental, visual and performing arts elementary school that would draw students from across the city ought to be a top priority for Baltimore education, political and business leaders. Such a school would offer programs in the arts that would be roughly equivalent to those the Baltimore School for the Arts offers high-school students.

Baltimore has an active cultural scene supported by an array of arts institutions that could contribute to the success of such a school. The city also has an abundance of able, experienced arts educators and, in Walter G. Amprey, a school superintendent who has supported arts experiments such as Tench Tilghman Elementary's successful programs.

What better way to expand on the success at Tilghman and the Baltimore School for the Arts than by creating a public arts elementary school to complement these programs?

This is the kind of project that Baltimore's business community and foundations ought to support wholeheartedly. Remember: The best economic development project is a good public school. Every time the city creates a fine school it creates a reason for people to live and work in Baltimore. Every down payment it makes on city-wide school reform is a down payment on business development and jobs in the future.

Nor would the cost be exorbitant, even for a city and school system as financially strapped as Baltimore's. To get the project off the ground, there's no reason the city couldn't put together a package with local, state and private funding similar to the one that presently supports its arts high school.

Moreover, the city already has a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on. A visual and performing arts elementary school could even be launched as an annex of the School for the Arts, perhaps in a nearby building (the current BSA building isn't large enough to accommodate a separate elementary school). That would allow the elementary school to take advantage of the expertise the BSA staff has accumulated over the last dozen years in developing high-quality arts instruction in an academic setting.

The school also would be able to draw on existing early-childhood arts programs run by the Preparatory School of Peabody Institute and the city's TWIGS ("To Work In Gaining Skills") programs, which provide instruction in instrumental music and dance. Both organizations have assembled cadres of gifted teachers who specialize in early-childhood arts education. And of course, the school should be able to call on the artists of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the faculty of the Peabody Institute and Maryland Institute, College of Art, for inspiration and guidance.

The idea of an elementary school for the visual and performing arts may strike some as elitist, given the budget cuts that have decimated art and music programs in the city's other public schools. But one of the school's most important functions would be to develop new methods and materials with which to reintroduce quality arts instruction in public schools city-wide.

It should be obvious by now that the school-reform movement took a disastrous wrong turn when it opted to resolve the education-funding crunch by jettisoning art and music instruction. In doing so, it eliminated precisely those curriculum elements that nurture and support the vital skills that make other kinds of learning possible.

In principle, the solution ought to be equally obvious: a gradual, across-the-board reintroduction of art and music into the public school curriculum from the earliest grades.

In practice, however, budget constraints probably make it impossible to effect system-wide change soon. Moreover, any attempt simply to resurrect the art and music curriculum of the 1960s almost certainly would be short-sighted, given the vast economic and societal changes that have occurred since then.

What is required is an integrated program tailored to the needs of children growing up in the 1990s and a controlled setting in which to test and perfect it before it is adopted on a system-wide scale.

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