The arts are not dying in public schools, or at least not in Howard County. Instead, they're being infused into language arts, social studies, math and science, breathing new life into those subjects while offering students a new approach to learning.
The approach is called arts integration, and it is reaping dividends at several Howard County schools, particularly those at the elementary level. In using art, dance, drawing and painting in other class settings, teachers say they are improving students' retention and grasp of subject matter.
"This program brings back student excitement for learning and engagement, while deepening their critical-thinking skills," said Susan Riley, vocal music teacher and teacher development liaison at Thunder Hill Elementary School in Columbia.
"It is human nature to make natural connections between subjects in the world around us," Riley said. "Arts integration allows us to bring that into the classroom and provide opportunities for our students to bring their previous knowledge, new skills and unique learning abilities together under one umbrella of learning.
"In addition, this curricular method gives our teachers the ability to do what they do best: Be creative in the classroom and become excited by watching their students thrive. Behavior problems are minimized because students want to be involved in the lessons and are suddenly fully engaged in moving their own learning into new directions."
Riley said that after arts integration methods were introduced, schoolwide test scores in math and reading improved. Thunder Hill's test scores in math put it among the top two elementary schools in Howard, and its reading and math scores are now among the top 30 in the state.
"While it is difficult to make a direct correlation between arts integration and rising test scores, because the variables are just too great, there is no denying that our school and students are making progress and that arts integration is an integral piece of our school improvement plan," Riley said.
Julie Brinkley of Columbia, who has two boys at Thunder Hill, said that arts integration has made the lessons more three-dimensional, and added, "With boys, if you can make it more three-dimensional, they're going to understand it and incorporate it better.
"In social studies, my third-grader brought home a map he drew out with certain geometric symbols. The fact that he is using art to create a social studies map is all interdisciplinary in that matter."
Last week, officials from Towson University sponsored a workshop geared toward arts integration. Teachers and administrators from Waverly and Hollifield Station elementary schools took part in the workshop, which was presented by artist Jackie Thunfors, founder of the Paint Your Life system, which allows users to convey ideas through images instead of words.
Towson works with Howard County schools to help teachers discover nontraditional approaches to teaching, said Morna McDermott McNulty, associate professor in Towson's College of Education. McNulty works as the site co-coordinator for Towson's Professional Development School, which partners with elementary schools in Ellicott City. Towson is helping the schools develop and implement arts-integrated curricula across content areas and grades.
But McNulty said arts integration should not take the place of arts classes.
"They're like cousins," she said. "They work in tandem with each other. Arts integration is harnessing these different ways of knowing the world that come to us through art in order to understand other things outside or beyond the art form itself."
Mark Coates, Howard County schools coordinator of fine arts, said that his office presented the model to a few elementary school principals in the county five years ago, hoping to find new ways to engage students in the classroom.
Coates cited arts integration as a successful approach in other school districts in the United States and Europe. In addition to Thunder Hill, the method has been incorporated into Bollman Bridge, Running Brook and Hollifield Station elementaries.
He said that initially some teachers in science and math departments voiced concerns about the approach. "They were concerned that they wouldn't be able to cover their content," he said. "However, after they understand that they are still able to teach the same content, just in a different way, they were quick to embrace this approach.
"The primary objective for arts integration is to improve student learning. Arts integration enables teachers to address students of all learning styles," said Coates. "The objective of improving learning through engaged students is accomplished by making natural connections between the content and an art form and teaching the objectives of both."