Art for the students' sake

Schools: A city workshop on arts instruction raises the question of why such programs aren't available on a daily basis.

November 14, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Eight-year-old Arnold Farmer and his 6-year-old brother, Arnell, rediscovered their love of music and art yesterday. Their mother was left to wonder why the activities at a series of city arts workshops aren't available every day in Baltimore's elementary schools.

"I remember that when I went to school, we always had art and music classes," Rita Ford-Farmer said as she watched her sons make masks in the style of Henri Matisse's work. "But that's not the way it is now, and I'm very concerned about it."

Baltimore educators and parents vowed yesterday to rejuvenate the city school system's struggling arts program, calling it unacceptable for thousands of students to receive almost no exposure to the visual arts, dance, drama and music.

"We have got to get a full complement of the arts in every single school in Baltimore City," said Camay Murphy, a member of the city Board of School Commissioners. "A strong arts program is critical for our children to achieve."

Gathered at Coldstream Park Elementary School to begin American Education Week, about 30 parents and their children from across the city spent yesterday morning in workshops illustrating different types of art instruction -- singing familiar tunes, learning African dances, creating story quilts.

For the children, it was an opportunity to have fun with art.

For their parents, it was a chance to be tempted by possibilities -- if the city school system is able to find the money and teachers to make a new commitment to arts education.

Ford-Farmer said she wants her sons to learn to play the violin or other instruments, but classes aren't available at Arlington Elementary School or at most other city elementaries. "It would be great if these activities were put in every school," she said.

Half of Baltimore's 123 elementary schools do not have choral music programs, and only 16 have instrumental music programs, according to a 1998 survey. Thirty-seven elementaries don't offer visual arts instruction.

By contrast, all but the smallest elementary schools in suburban systems have full-time art teachers and music teachers.

"In the Baltimore City public schools, we have patches of excellence, we have patches of mediocrity, and in too many places, we have nothing at all," said Thomas DeLaine, the city's supervisor of fine arts and physical education. "We have to turn this thing around."

Many city schools have strong arts programs. Booker T. Washington Middle School maintains a highly regarded arts academy, and the Baltimore School for the Arts remains a national model for a public high school arts magnet program.

But many students accepted by the School for the Arts live outside the city, because too few Baltimore children are adequately prepared to present strong auditions, city arts educators said.

"I remember a [city] school system where arts were part of every school," lamented Joan Cohen, a visual arts curriculum specialist. "It's not that way anymore."

Resources diverted

Arts supporters say part of the decline in arts education can be traced to giving city principals more control over their schools.

In the push to increase test scores, many principals cut back on arts programs to put their resources into extra reading teachers or new math textbooks.

"If you had the arts in schools, I think that all of the test scores would go up," said Linda Cox, who brought her two sons and a niece to yesterday's event. "It's something important for the kids to learn."

With the workshops, city educators and arts advocates hope to begin a campaign to build parent support for the arts. They point to extensive research that students enrolled in strong arts programs have higher achievement in math and reading than those who do not have such programs.

"I believe this is a turning point," DeLaine told the parents. "Within a few years, we will see more programs, if we get your help and support."

Task force to convene

A task force is to begin work this month to draw up plans on how the school system should rebuild its arts program, particularly to ensure that the city meets the state school board's goal, stated in 1995, that all Maryland students participate in fine arts programs soon.

"Officials from the state have kind of excused Baltimore from meeting those standards because of our low level in other areas," Murphy said.

"It's coming to the point when we say that the arts standards have got to be part of the curriculum here, too," Murphy added.

Last summer, when the city school board was drawing up the most recent draft of its master plan for improvement, parents and arts supporters mounted a letter-writing campaign and got a commitment to the arts added to the document.

The master plan calls for the city school system to spend $30 million on arts education programs in the 2001-2002 school year. Though that might prove an unrealistic goal, a substantial budget increase would be required for a major expansion of arts instruction.

"The myth that the arts are just for talented people should go away," DeLaine said. "The arts are for all students."

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