Arts Education Saves a Struggling School From Being Shut Down

A longer school day and more arts education helped students at a once-struggling school in Boston succeed.

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The eighth-grade students at Clarence Edwards Middle School in Boston follow current events very closely.

They are not keeping up with the news to pass a grade or ace a test.

Instead, students collect national and international headlines for something much more significant—a class mural that captures the year on canvas. Each student contributes to the project, and as a result, the topics foster a discussion about perspectives and beliefs as well as a vivid piece of art.

This kind of project—and others involving the arts—is what transformed Clarence Edwards Middle School from a failing school in 2006 to one with a waiting list in 2013. The crucial technique that school leaders used to achieve this substantial change?

They expanded learning time.

School leaders did so by applying for a grant in 2006 that gave schools the money to add 300 hours to the school year. Clarence Edwards received the grant from the state and got to work on redesigning the school day for academics, enrichment, and teacher collaboration.

In turn, the school was given more leeway by the district.

Clarence Edwards is one of the schools featured in the recent report, Advancing Arts Education Through an Expanded School Day: Lessons From Five Schools, by The National Center on Time & Learning and The Wallace Foundation.

The report states that schools are dismissing the No Child Left Behind concept that arts cannot exist in tandem with literature and math.

Instead, a vigorous curriculum that includes theater, dance, painting, and music goes a long way in creating well-rounded students—even if it means they have a longer school day.

The National Center on Time & Learning states that “1,000 schools across the nation feature a school day that is at least seven hours long and a day and/or year that is meaningfully longer than those of surrounding public schools.”

Some are charter schools, while others are traditional public schools that lengthened the school day by creating “innovative districts” that allow for more flexibility.

“Americans for the Arts believes that an expanded school day is one successful model for providing a high quality education in the arts,” Narric Rome, Senior Director of Federal Affairs and Arts Education at Americans for the Arts, said in a release about the report. “Through this report, education leaders can clearly see how five different schools have maintained high values for arts education, such as offering the arts to all students, offering core arts classes taught by certified teachers, and enriching the arts curriculum through partnerships in the community.”

For the last 30 years, the arts have become more and more ignored in schools around the country. But Clarence Edwards Middle School has opted to change this.

“The arts allow children to authentically open their minds, express themselves, and produce achievement in many, many ways—beyond the ways that we can measure,” Leo Flanagan, Jr., the school’s principal, said in the report.

The mantra at the school is that arts is a given right to every student, not simply bestowed upon them as a reward for academic excellence or a punishment to be taken away. Instead, educators call it “the sanctity of the arts,” and they want to see students excel in creative endeavors. To do so, the school has a full-time arts faculty and partnerships with dozens of organizations such as Citizens Schools and individual artists.

One of the highlights of the school is a project called “Name that Beat,” an interactive, collaborative sixth-grade English lesson that integrates pop music with literacy skills.

According to Emily Bryan, the school’s English-language arts teacher, students listen to the beats of popular music while reading a few lines of the song’s lyrics on a PowerPoint presentation. Students working in small groups study the lines and must identify similes, metaphors, and alliteration.

Bryan wrote in the report, “Because it engages every type of learner at every proficiency level, this is a very effective classroom game. Students who are shy to contribute, or are hard to engage, become excited and contribute their knowledge of music to the group, while they listen to and learn from the more advanced students, who focus on tutoring everyone in the group when a name is pulled.”

The arts education at Clarence Edwards Middle School is likely to help students succeed long after they have left behind their eighth-grade mural.

Low-income kids who are highly engaged in the arts are more than twice as likely to graduate college than their peers with no arts education.

“Education in the arts is more important than ever,” Margo Lion, co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said in the release. “To succeed at school and in the workforce, America’s children need to be creative thinkers and problem solvers. Arts education fosters those skills at a critical time in childhood development.”

In America today, nearly four million elementary school students receive no arts education and 11 percent of secondary schools don’t offer art classes.

Often budget cuts are the problem. So, if budgets are cut and schools don’t get a grant, what should they do?

Odyssey Charter School in Los Angeles has an innovative approach. They work to integrate arts education into each subject and bring in parent volunteers who also happen to be artists. Here is Primo, one of the most creative kids at Odyssey. 


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