Art and Music - Commitment to elementary arts education strong

Lawrence public schools' success in the 'Three Rs' assures the future of art and music education

The new federal education bill, which President Bush recently signed into law, will among other things, mandate annual assessment testing in math and reading for students in grades three through eight. Schools that fail to perform up to prescribed standards will face the withdrawal of students by parents who are dissatisfied with substandard performance.

Many school districts are bracing themselves in the face of assessment testing and will be forced to make difficult decisions about how to reallocate meager resources in order to raise flagging scores.

Districts where scores are low enough to put a school's future in peril will find at risk, educational programs that might not appear to directly have an impact on those measurements. Art and music programs run the risk of being treated as having secondary importance where measured progress in core academics is unsatisfactory.

According to administrators and educators involved with arts education in Lawrence's school district, no such state of crisis exists here and as a result; thriving programs in art and music in the elementary schools are not threatened here.

"One of the strengths of the Lawrence school district is that it has such fine music and art programs," says Ann Bruemmer, the district's first-year director of arts and humanities.

"I don't see that being de-emphasized. I see the music and art program as critical to the education of students as reading and writing and math simply because today there is tremendous integration into those areas," she continues.

Explaining how arts education is part and parcel of an overall educational philosophy, Bruemmer explains:

"You take mathematics where you're teaching geometry, what are the kids drawing? They're drawing geometric figures. They're taking their artistic talents and they're putting it in there, they're patterning. When they read, what are we asking them to do? We're asking them to visualize, to draw pictures, to look at illustrations. I don't see those things leaving. I see them as being integral parts of making reading and writing and math become real for them."

Some will question wisdom of judging school performance on the basis of a narrow set of quantifiable criteria. As an administrator, Bruemmer is conscious of the fact that the educational opportunities offered to students in Lawrence run much broader than those that assessment tests are equipped to quantify.

"There's some fear among educators, myself as well that we could be overemphasizing assessment and testing kids too much," she said.

According to Bruemmer, "There is a need for assessment in our system to make sure kids are learning what they're supposed to. I'm not sure testing is going to accomplish what it needs to because number one, we need to base what we test upon what we teach."

Lawrence is a city that takes the arts to heart, and has seen developed in its schools, arts programs it can point to with justifiable pride.

Lawrence provides for dedicated art and music teachers at the elementary school level, something even a larger district like USD 501 in Topeka cannot boast. This is a product of several influences, among them the value that Lawrence places on the arts as well as several institutional factors.

In the late 1980s, the teachers negotiated for and received 40 minutes of daily planning time in their work schedules.

Students have to be somewhere out of their regular classrooms during this time. Due to the evolving role school librarians into that of busy, media facilitators for classroom teachers, parking large numbers of students in school libraries was not a workable solution, nor are there enough hours of physical education available to provide all teachers with required planning periods.

According to Langston Hughes Elementary School art teacher Brigid Murphy, CAVA, the Committee for the Advancement of the Visual Arts, seized upon this need as an opportunity to launch a lobbying effort to help fill this need with art teachers. As a result, there is a current formula that allows for a full art, music, and physical education teacher for approximately every 500 students in Lawrence elementary schools.

Since some schools are smaller and others exceed that number, some schools such as Quail Run, have full time art and music teachers teaching entirely in one school. Other smaller schools such as Centennial and Cordley, share teachers that rove between facilities until such time as enrollment numbers require full-time staffing.

Another factor in the growth of arts education in Lawrence's elementary schools is the commitment to addressing school development in a way that prevents local schools from reaching a state of crisis in the teaching of educational fundamentals.

Ann Breummer explains, "I think Lawrence is way ahead of what a lot of districts have done, because they have been involved in school improvement and trying to make programs better all along. I don't think they've let any one area become a great weakness. When they see weaknesses they go and they work on them. They target it."

The quality of arts education available in Lawrence's elementary schools is something in which teachers themselves take a good deal of pride. Deerfield Elementary School music teacher Sara Wedle feels that as a result of providing music education to younger students, Lawrence's choruses, choirs, bands and orchestras perform at a level beyond their age. "Our elementary choirs sound as good as junior high school choirs, and our junior high students sound as good as other districts' high school choirs," she comments.

Bruemmer was confident the school system was doing well enough in all areas to continue to offer strong support for arts education.

"I think we're well ahead of the game. I think we are there and we're doing the right thing," Bruemmer said.

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