ON a recent Saturday morning, the Baltimore School for the Arts -- the city's only public school specializing in fine arts education -- was jammed to the rafters with children eager to participate in dance, music and theatrical performances.
The event was so successful that organizers had to turn away late-comers. That same day, a few miles away, children plucked violins and swiveled their hips at Cold Stream Elementary, where another arts workshop was in progress.
For many children, these events were a rare treat. Fine arts instruction has all but vanished from the city's schools.
Since many Baltimore families cannot afford private music, art or dance lessons, the children do without. It's hard to believe that any professional educator would dismiss art and music as frills -- or worse, as irrelevant to basic learning.
But that is precisely what Baltimore school administrators did for years. In 1986, an independent task force reported that arts education in Baltimore's schools suffered from neglect and decline.
Arts take a back seat
The city's response: shelve the report. Budgets were shrinking, test scores were dipping, so schools needed to concentrate on the three R's, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
We've paid a big price for that line of thinking. Generations of children have graduated without playing a single musical note, dancing a single step, or making those first tentative brush strokes on canvas.
The take-home message to them: Art doesn't count. And artists are from another planet.
Needless to say, Draconian cuts in the arts were remarkably short-sighted. A growing body of research reveals a direct connection between music and arts education and a child's ability to excel academically.
In a University of Wisconsin study, for example, kindergartners who took group piano instruction outscored those receiving no music training by 48 percent on abstract reasoning tests -- and the enhancements carried over to first grade.
Today, school administrators want to sing a different tune. They're all for bringing arts instruction back into the schools. But that's easier said than done.
Decades of neglect have taken their toll. Earlier this year, a new task force, led by Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute found the arts in Baltimore schools remain in exile.
For instance: One-third of all Baltimore elementary schools offer no visual arts or music program. (Nationwide, 97 percent of elementary schools offer music instruction.) Dance and theater programs are rarely present.
Only 7 percent of city high school students were enrolled in visual arts courses, compared with 34 percent in Baltimore County. And more than twice as many county high school students are enrolled in music programs. Arts programs in Baltimore do not meet national arts instruction standards.
But a chorus of promises now hangs in the air. The Maryland State Department of Education has pledged that by next year, 100 percent of Maryland's students will participate in fine arts programs.
State arts plan
To that end, the state is now requiring every school district to design a five-year plan for meeting a new set of arts education standards in music, visual arts, theater and dance. In short, arts education is now a built-in requirement, just like math or reading. There's no more opting out.
But before we all rise for a standing ovation, consider the pitfalls of implementation, especially in Baltimore. Though the city was the first district in the state to produce a five-year plan -- indeed, its new fine arts committee will meet shortly to determine how to integrate the arts with academics -- moving from paper to performance will be difficult.
Where will certified arts instructors come from, for one thing? They've all but vanished from city school corridors. The teacher shortage will just compound the problem.
Perhaps even more daunting is the prevailing political climate in city schools. With standardized test scores still discouragingly low, there is unrelenting pressure to put reading and math above all else.
Oh, sure, the research says arts instruction will help in these areas -- but how many principals are willing to take this on faith?
Thomas De Laine, fine arts supervisor for Baltimore schools, admits he faces an uphill battle. "We're about changing attitudes about the fine arts. There's been a dearth of this [positive] attitude. But we know that it is the right thing to do."
Despite good intentions, the city may be suffering from a bad case of stage fright. There's no timetable for phasing-in fine arts instruction next year -- though there are promises that it will happen. And the state has yet to sign off on the city's plan.
It's hard to imagine city school hallways ringing with song or tap shoes anytime soon. Perhaps that's a sign of just how absent these arts have been. Then again, perhaps it's a sign of how little some of us trust city school bureaucrats -- or the state -- to introduce a measure of equity into our beleaguered system.
Let's just hope this is one plan that doesn't turn into amateur hour.
Amy L. Bernstein is a free-lance writer and president of the Mount Washington Elementary School Parent/Teacher Organization. She can be reached at email@example.com.