THE GIGGLING dissipated rapidly when Florence Gardner, assistant principal of West Baltimore's Booker T. Washington Middle School, took to the auditorium microphone and began singing.
An audience of students, in forced attendance for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. assembly a few days ago, shifted into rapt attention, clapping to the gospel sounds. Two choirs accompanied Gardner, and there was more to come: performances by the school's band and by dancers who had been practicing for weeks. On stage, student-drawn portraits of King added more flavor.
Booker T. Washington, historically the school of West Baltimore's African-American elite -- Thurgood Marshall and Kweisi Mfume number among its graduates -- is bursting with the sights and sounds of art these days. It's being transformed into an arts academy, the equivalent at the middle-school level of the city's RTC highly regarded School for the Arts for high-schoolers.
Using poverty grants and some political savvy, Principal Ruth N. Bukatman has assembled a team of talented artists and musicians, most of them part-timers, who conduct daily classes in the visual and performing arts. Meanwhile, interdisciplinary teams have been working to infuse arts across the curriculum.
Gardner says the effort is paying off. "There's a different attitude in the school and in the neighborhood," she says. Attendance is holding at 92 percent -- excellent for an inner-city school -- and the hallways are bright and clean. Conspicuously free of graffiti are the hallway murals. "They don't touch these," says Gardner. "People take pride in something beautiful."
The same cannot be said for other schools. It's a cliche that art and music "are the first to go" in budgetary crises, but the thing about cliches is that they are true. Art and music, along with their cousin physical education, have been cut back drastically in city schools over many years. And though curriculum writers try valiantly to weave the arts into all subjects, many teachers have no idea how to do it effectively.
"Yes, we're spread thin," says Thomas DeLaine, the city's supervisor of fine arts, "though we do have some pockets of excellence. What we're trying to do is persuade the powers-that-be and the public of the importance of the arts."
In many circles, the arts aren't considered "cognitive" subjects like history and mathematics. But "good schools require the arts," says Jay Tucker, chief of arts and humanities for the State Education Department, and there's a strong and proven correlation between academic achievement and talent in fine arts, drama, dance and music.
One of the ironies in Maryland is that the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) apparently has pushed the arts even further into the background as schools rush to do well on the MSPAP tests. This is especially the case in the city, where 28 percent of the schools have been declared "reconstitution-eligible" -- that is, ordered to shape up. (Ten more city schools were added Friday.)
"One of the unintended consequences of MSPAP is a decrease in arts instruction," says Mary Ann Mears, a Baltimore artist, mother of city schoolchildren and chairwoman of the Arts Education in Maryland Consortium. "It's a huge irony, because the arts teach the very skills that MSPAP seeks to advance. People who are educated in the arts do dramatically better on the MSPAP. They know how to think creatively, how to come up with alternative solutions to a problem.
"Children understand the message when there's no arts program at their school. It invalidates the artistic part of them. It tells them this isn't important."
Or, as DeLaine puts it, "The arts have always been performance-based. Artists know that they are judged on the quality of their performance. That's what MSPAP is about." The state Education Department has a task force working on curriculum guidelines and performance standards for arts education, but no one as yet knows how to assess arts achievement accurately on a statewide basis.
All around, however, there are bright spots like Booker T. Four years ago, the prominent educator Ernest L. Boyer (who died last year) looked at the state of the arts in the Baltimore metropolitan area and found it wanting.
Boyer made several recommendations, few of which have been carried out. But the Baltimore Community Foundation, which sponsored the Boyer report and pledged $1 million at the time, determined to act as a broker for partnerships between area arts organizations and schools. Since 1993, says foundation director Timothy D. Armbruster, 29 partnerships have been established with 20 schools in three Central Maryland districts.
At Booker T., meanwhile, what Boyer called the "universal language of the arts" is spoken, where once there was drabness. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!" sang Flo Gardner. "And the sight," she might have added.
'If they can do better... ' Well, why not let them try?
Since MSPAP began for real in 1994, 50 of the 52 schools ordered to reform or face the consequences are in Baltimore. City frustration runs high. "If they can do better, let them," is the attitude heard frequently.
Well, why not? Establish a friendly competition between the "partners." Turn over three of the seven elementary schools declared failures Friday to Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the State Education Department. The other four remain the city's responsibility. Give each side until the end of the millennium to make changes for the better. Compare the results in 2000.
Pub Date: 2/02/97