Arts district increases interest in plans for school program

The Baltimore Sun

The Anne Arundel County school board will weigh tonight whether to launch a performing and visual arts magnet program at Bates Middle School in fall 2009, a move district officials hope will turn an Annapolis school with declining enrollment into an attractive option for families who are increasingly turning to private schools.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell had raised the possibility in September of turning Bates into an arts magnet school in the 2010-2011 school year as part of a larger discussion of signature offerings such as pre-law, homeland security and science, technology and engineering programs to make public middle and high schools more competitive. But now the district wants to begin the Bates magnet sooner, as interest builds among local politicians in creating an Annapolis arts district along outer West Street.

The Anne Arundel County Council unanimously approved a resolution Monday night that endorsed the revitalization efforts and gave Annapolis a green light to apply to the state for an arts district that could lure professional artists and businesses through income and property tax breaks.

County and city officials have said the arts district would bolster the school system's efforts for Bates' magnet program.

Including new teacher training and facilities improvements, startup costs for the magnet program are estimated at $250,000 -- a sum the school board might be hard-pressed to approve as it braces for a particularly austere budget season.

Officials at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, which shares a campus with Bates, also want to beef up their facilities to coincide with the prospect of a magnet program. Maryland Hall's executive director, Linnell Bowen, is planning to approach the school board tonight to ask for support in her group's work to get a more lenient Critical Area designation that allows the aging arts center to add facilities, including rehearsal halls and larger classrooms.

Development is prohibited on the 34 acres the Bates and Maryland Hall buildings occupy because they are within 1,000 feet of protected tidal waters and wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay. Bowen and others want to be allowed to develop on 5 acres of their property and believe the school board's magnet plan will benefit from the expanded facilities.

"We think it's going to be a win-win," Bowen said yesterday. "It's been shown over and over again: Arts help improve student excellence. It's not just a 'right brain, left brain' thing. Arts also help students get excited about learning and help engage parents."

The magnet program would offer an integrated arts curriculum at Bates, meaning teachers would incorporate the performing and visual arts into every subject they teach, including math, social studies and language arts. Students learning about the Constitution in social studies, for example, might perform a play about the Constitutional Convention or explore music in Colonial America rather than write a traditional essay, said Maureen McMahon, the school system's director of advanced studies and programs.

Teachers would find ways to collaborate with Maryland Hall's professional artists, who could visit the school and offer workshops on topics from photography to dance. Students could attend exhibits at Maryland Hall, and even coordinate joint performances with dance and theater groups.

The magnet program gives Bates Middle School the niche it desperately needs, said Daniel Semick, a member of the school's citizens advisory committee. The father of an eighth-grader at the school, Semick said that Bates has suffered from an exodus of parents who are choosing private schools over public; during the past five years, Bates' enrollment has dropped from 653 to 567.

Semick also said the school has struggled to stay competitive as nearby Annapolis Middle School enhanced its programming with an International Baccalaureate track last year. Semick said he and others also want the district to turn Bates into a technological hub.

"Bates has needed help for years, but somehow it just fell through the cracks," Semick said. "It's a credit to Superintendent Maxwell that he's jump-starting this magnet program by a year. The school needs it now."

Magnet program

Anne Arundel County Public Schools project $250,000 in start-up costs for a new performing and visual arts magnet program at Bates Middle School:

$16,000 - Curriculum revision and writing, including a facilitator who coordinates both;

$7,500 - Training teacher teams on how to teach an integrated arts curriculum;

$46,500 - Summer programs to allow teachers to test the arts curriculum on small groups of students;

$5,000 - School officials' visits to other magnet programs in the region;

$175,000 facility study to see how spaces in the school can be re-purposed and expanded to support arts instruction.

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