Last year, Elm Creative Arts School in Milwaukee failed to live up to its name.
A gallery for student artwork had become a storage area and meeting space. The performance space, dubbed the "great room" with theater-style seating, was used as an alternative route to cut down on hallway traffic. The only arts class students regularly attended was dance.
The school's divergence from its mission reflected a time that Milwaukee Superintendent Gregory Thornton says students across Milwaukee's public schools were being "starved" of an educational staple.
Thornton, who will become Baltimore's schools chief in July, sought to replenish the arts menu not only at Elm Creative but throughout the district over the last three years of his tenure there.
"I believe arts is a part of a good diet," he said as he visited a now-vibrant Elm just days after the announcement that he'd be heading to Baltimore. "We're getting healthier now."
Thornton's appointment has heartened Baltimore arts advocates, who hope he will breathe new life into the school system's diminished arts education. Advocates say the arts — which include music, art, theater and dance — have fallen to the bottom of the district's budgets and priority lists, leaving many children with sparse access to such classes.
In Milwaukee, Thornton developed a record as an arts champion. By the time he leaves, he is set to restore nearly 100 arts, music and physical education teaching positions — in some cases doubling the funding for these specialists in elementary and middle schools — that had been cut from budgets
On a day in February, Elm Creative was pulsing again. The gallery-turned-storage room was wallpapered with fifth-graders' interpretation of Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers." In classrooms, students were acting out "name poems" in drama, learning the "Irish jig" in dance, and building pyramids with hieroglyphics in art. And the school was working on a production calendar for the "great room."
"Everyone is happier," said Barbara Hickling, Elm's principal. "We believe in it again."
During the superintendent selection process in Baltimore, a coalition of arts organizations seized what they believed was a critical moment in the city. The group packed school board meetings, attended forums, sent letters and submitted interview questions for candidates.
"We knew this was an important moment, with the next CEO coming in, because looking across the state, it really is a leadership issue," said Mary Ann Mears, founder of the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance, which belongs to the coalition. "There are some places with programs that are phenomenal and others where there's a desert."
Advocates say the Baltimore school system has a few standout arts programs, such as the School for the Arts and Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. At Roland Park, every elementary school student has visual art, general and instrumental music, and physical education every week, and all the fine-arts teachers hold advanced degrees in their fields.
But Mears, a longtime arts advocate, and others say the school system has never recovered from efforts in 2004 by Superintendent Carmen Russo to slash arts teachers to help plug a $58 million deficit.
Since then, they say, the city has failed to rebuild a strong force of full-time, certified arts teachers. And now, limited resources and testing pressures have further hampered the ability of principals to augment arts offerings.
"Baltimore has done this so well in the past, but it's taken an administration to set a vision and expectations for the district," Mears said.
City school officials said the district requires schools to meet state law, which is to provide an instructional program, taught by a certified fine arts teacher, that is "comprehensive and sequential."
The majority of city schools meet that requirement with the bare minimum: one part-time certified teacher in either music or visual arts.
Brian K. Schneckenburger, who oversees visual and performing arts for the district, said that while schools are complying with the rules, the situation is not ideal.
"Obviously for a comprehensive education, you want to be covering more than one content area," Schneckenburger said.
On a recent day, Schneckenburger showcased the high-performing Cecil Elementary School, one of the few traditional neighborhood schools in the city that has a full-time teacher for art and a full-time teacher for music.