Cutbacks create arts gap in city Spending: Budgetary limits have forced many schools to decrease or eliminate classes in visual arts, music and drama.

The Education Beat

September 23, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A THREE-PART series concluding yesterday in The Sun documented the flow of precious resources from "general" education in city schools to that hungry and profligate blob, special education.

As a result, reading, science and math programs have suffered for years. But one basic program has been particularly neglected, and it badly needs champions. That's Baltimore's education in the arts.

The arts' status in city schools is summed up by Mary Ann Mears, an artist who has been active for a long time in promoting dance, visual arts, music and drama in Maryland and Baltimore:

"What had been an exemplary program 30 years ago has been eroded through inertia, budgetary problems, changes in philosophy and changes in administration."

The primary cause is budgetary. Last year, the principals had to reduce class size. Every year they have to attempt to increase Maryland School Performance scores so as not to be deemed "reconstitution-eligible" by the state. This year there's a tremendous (and much-needed) effort to improve reading performance.

And the principals have to do this on a budget -- in the elementary schools -- of about $2,700 per student, a third to a half of the amount their peers in the state's wealthy districts spend.

The arts usually go first.

Statistics bear this out. Recent surveys find about 37 of the city's 123 elementary schools have no visual arts instruction at all. Only 16 elementary schools have instrumental music programs. Vocal music is neglected in half the schools.

The city hasn't purchased a musical instrument since 1982. "Duct tape and rubber bands" hold together what instruments the schools have been able to maintain, according to music curriculum specialist Jill Warzer.

The ratio of piano tuners to pianos is 1-to-1,114.

The situation is so bleak that the Baltimore School for the Arts, an internationally known high school, has to do its own recruiting because the elementary and high school pipeline is so dry.

Music and art teachers such as Gwendolyn Wright, who was working yesterday at Grove Park Elementary School, move like circuit preachers. They travel to two, three or four schools on a regular schedule, teaching from a cart, storing materials in their car trunks. The visual arts teacher-to-student ratio is about 1-to-1,200. This in a city with a rich arts heritage and in a state that last year established a set of "standards" in the arts that local districts are expected to meet fully by 2000.

The challenge for arts proponents hasn't changed in decades: to convince educators that the arts are an essential part of the curriculum, "not a frill or a blandishment," says Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute and chairman of a 54-member ** city arts education advisory committee.

"We have a real sense of urgency about this," says Sirota. "We're in danger of losing another generation."

Sirota and Mears discern some silver linings among the clouds. The School for the Arts remains a beacon. Booker T. Washington Middle School has been transformed into an arts magnet. Roland Park, Leith Walk and Yorkwood have worked to include the arts as an integral part of the curriculum. City College, Southwestern and Western high schools have produced award-winning visual artists.

Another bright spot this fall is a net increase in music and visual arts teachers.

Indeed, although the situation is worse than it was when a task force reported in 1986, worse than a statistical report found it in 1991, more principals added arts classes this fall than dropped them.

"I'm thrilled at the quality of the new teachers I've seen," says Kathleen N. Lockhart, visual arts curriculum specialist who has observed the decline for many years.

It's not enough, says Sirota, for a school to engage in periodic "enrichment."

"You don't have an arts program when someone comes in and plays a string quartet and leaves, or when someone comes in and talks about Renaissance art -- and leaves. Or when you take a group once a year to the BMA. That's like bringing in the world's greatest phonics expert to give a lecture, and then saying you've satisfied your reading obligations."

As always, there are social and racial overtones in the drive to restore the arts in city schools. Some of those spearheading the effort are white (and not exactly starving artists) in a city with a school system that's more than 80 percent black. But those African-American students possess a proud, rich and limitless arts heritage.

"This isn't about elitism," says Sirota. "It's about training fulfilled, happy, productive people to take their rightful place in society."

Courses worth taking at Baltimore campuses

Two courses we'd like to audit this fall if we had the time:

1. "Cities Under Stress: Learning From Baltimore," at the Johns Hopkins University, taught by six professors in six disciplines, using the city as a living urban laboratory.

2. "Education and Law Seminar," at the University of Maryland School of Law, taught by Professor Susan P. Leviton and Matthew H. Joseph of Advocates for Children and Youth , covering such timely topics as school choice, desegregation, special education and state school reform.

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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