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Arts education advocates see promise in Thornton

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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.

On the first floor, a class of first-graders mimicked playing instruments in the air as they listened to sounds from a SmartBoard, and on the second floor another class sculpted playgrounds out of construction paper.

Schneckenburger noted that the school's longtime art teacher plans to retire at the end of the year.

"We're dreading it," he said. "There aren't a lot like her around anymore."

The city school system has 285 certified arts instructors this year in its 189 schools, a 15 percent decline in teachers over the past four years, according to data provided by the city school system.

The number of arts teachers in the city trails significantly behind those in neighboring counties, which have more programs.

For example, Baltimore County has a total of 691 fine-arts teachers in its 173 schools, most of whom are full-time. Every school also has at least one part-time art and one part-time music teacher, and many schools have both vocal and instrumental music.

Thornton's appointment comes at a time when city and state leaders are looking to understand the gaps in art education.

In September, Gov. Martin O'Malley established a state task force on arts education. Mears, who co-chairs the task force, said the governor was concerned about the city and wanted better data collection and a better understanding of programs and resources throughout the state.

The task force, which includes representatives from all of the region's school districts except the city, will make recommendations to the governor this year.

School board leaders in the city recently confronted the lack of robust arts education offered.

Amid a debate about increasing tuition for out-of-district students to attend the Baltimore School for the Arts, board members acknowledged that they needed to look at arts programs for younger students to determine why more aren't enrolling in the nationally renowned high school.

"We're not doing enough in K-8 for our students to attend a school like that," said David Stone, vice chair of the board.

Parents testified that they believed their children only got into the premier high school because they supplemented their children's arts education where city schools fell short.

Melanie Hood-Wilson, who attended the School for the Arts, told the board that she knew her daughter wouldn't have been ready to audition for the school because she didn't have the same public school foundation she had been afforded.

"It costs thousands of dollars for my daughter to get what I got for free … and without that, she wouldn't be at BSA right now," Hood-Wilson told the board.

Hood-Wilson said her eldest daughter was once taught theater by a foreign language teacher. She transferred her younger daughter after her art and music classes went from weekly to every other month.

"I have been lucky enough to be able to afford after-school and weekend arts classes for my kids; I have a flexible enough work schedule and a car to get them to lessons," Hood-Wilson said. "There are many talented kids in Baltimore City schools who will not get to develop their talent because they are unable to access arts instruction."

The board decided against the tuition increase.

Every child has access to an arts program at some point during the school year, Schneckenburger said, but that doesn't mean it's in a classroom setting. Advocates contend that means access to arts education can be inconsistent and mediocre.

The city school system said that as the number of licensed arts teachers has declined since 2010 — music education has seen the most decline — it has spent about $8 million on contracts with outside organizations to bring arts into schools, during the school day, after school or on Saturdays.

In addition to more than one dozen partners, there are also high-profile efforts such as the music program OrchKids in West Baltimore and the TWIGS program run by the Baltimore School for the Arts, both for younger children. But those programs only reach a limited demographic.

"There isn't equitable access to the arts," said Shyla Rao, of the Center for Arts Education at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "It really has become a social justice issue."

Advocates say there is no guarantee that external organizations are hiring staff certified in fine arts, and many programs are meant to be offered as a supplement and enrichment — not a replacement.

"Those things are great, but it's not a substitute," Mears said. "And at the end of the day, it's about what the taxpayers are paying for when it comes to a public education in Maryland."

Among the arts coalition's goals in the city is to have a certified, full-time teacher in visual arts, music, dance and theater in every school; ensure that students have a menu of cultural programming to choose from every year; and provide more professional development for teachers.

"We are very excited to be part of this next chapter with Dr. Thornton, to make sure the arts doesn't get pushed aside in conversations and budgets," said Julia Di Bussolo, executive director of Arts Every Day, which provides supplemental arts programs to city schools, including Cecil.

Schneckenburger said the advocates have sparked a much-needed dialogue.

"They have started a conversation that city schools hasn't had for a long time," he said.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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