Blueprint for arts education in Hamilton County

Blueprint for arts education in Hamilton County

December 19th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Hamilton County school system is the only major system in Tennessee that does not employ a certified art teacher in every one of its elementary schools. The consequent lack of a strongly grounded arts program is a disservice to those who attend the schools and, ultimately, to the community at large. Restoration of a broad-based art education program is vital if county students are to receive a well-rounded education that includes a fuller understanding and appreciation of the world around them.

Restoring art education to each of the county's elementary schools won't be easy and it won't come without cost. Still, it must be done. The arts remain vital to the education process, despite efforts, intentional and not, here and elsewhere to minimize their role in the curriculum. The arts properly remain, as President George W. Bush said, one of the core subjects of public education.

The study and understanding of art promote achievement and excellence across the academic curriculum, even in seemingly unrelated subjects. A mounting body of evidence shows that art spurs the imagination that is integral to learning and that it inspires learning across socio-economic levels. There is no longer debate about that.

Higher achievement

One study shows that low-income students who participate in arts activities more than nine hours a week are four times more likely to achieve better in school. They are three times more likely to have better school attendance, to participate more actively in student government, and to take part in math and science fairs, than peers who don't have a similar experience. At a time when many Hamilton County students fail to achieve at mandated levels, a program that inspires and encourages successful learning should be incorporated into the current elementary school curriculum.

There is a blueprint available for doing so. Allied Arts and its Imagine Chattanooga 20/20 education task force provide a useful and time-tested outline. It is based on a program that started in Dallas, Texas, a decade ago, and that has since grown into an entity that sends trained art advisers to every elementary school in Dallas to help teachers incorporate arts in classes. Its also changed public perception of how Dallas residents view arts education.

Once, Dallas arts teachers, like their compatriots in many other school districts across the country, were the last hired and first fired during budget crises. No more. Most arts teachers there kept their jobs in recent rounds of cutbacks because the public recognized the beneficial results of the arts programs.

The program pays $15 per student for art education through community and government partnerships. Dallas and its schools, of course, are different than Hamilton County and its schools, but that does not mean the Big Thought program there cannot be replicated here.

Given this community's long and successful use of public-private partnerships to promote change and growth, there is little doubt that a Big Thought-type program to promote and expand arts education would find a wide and appreciative following.

The initial investment, of course, would not be small. Allied Arts officials say about $300,000 would be needed to reverse the sad trend of underfunding arts programs that started when Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools merged in 1997. Before that, almost all elementary schools here had full-time visual arts teachers. Now, only eight do - four at magnet schools funded by the county and four others where programs are underwritten by PTA funds. If approved, a program like that suggested by Allied Arts would restore equity to arts education programs in schools here.

Gigi Antonini, president and CEO of Big Thought, was in Chattanooga recently to explain how art can be incorporated into lessons in other subjects. Her discussions and explanations were informative and instructive. One of many examples: Instruction on the solar system could use paintings to portray the planets. Dancers could teach about spatial relationships and actors could reenact trips to the moon. Surely, lessons incorporating the arts into teaching of subjects like math and science would make them more interesting than routine lesson plans.

Bringing new but proven concepts in arts education to Hamilton County will require a commitment to the idea of doing so. It will also require an initial financial investment. The Hamilton County Board of Education would have to respond positively to both the idea and to the need for funds to initiate the project. That might prove to be difficult.

A frank admission

Mike Evatt, school board chairman, says he likes the idea of integrating art education into the curriculum. "Art has its place. ... To give the child a well-rounded education, they need to be exposed to everything." He frankly admits, though, that paying for the program might be a tough sell because some "people don't think the arts needs to be in schools." Those people are wrong.

A child's education is incomplete without knowledge of the arts. Exposure to art in elementary school (and in higher grades, as well) demonstrably enhances the educational process and expands a student's understanding of contemporary and past culture. It also helps create a synergy that typically produces more engaged and higher achieving students, even in formerly low-achieving districts. Those are goals all who value education should embrace.

Allied Arts has taken the initiative and started a valuable discussion. The community should extend that conversation without getting bogged down in nonproductive talk about whether to restore arts education in schools here. It should quickly acknowledge that need, and then begin collaborative discussions about ways to restore and to fund a comprehensive arts education program in county schools.