Teaching the Arts on the Cheap

arts in schools Teaching the Arts on the CheapNew York City public school principals have hired 139 new arts and music teachers over the past three years. Good news for students returning to school Sept. 8, right?

In fact, according to the Center for Arts Education, a watchdog group, while the hiring of arts teachers has indeed inched up, spending on arts supplies, such as musical instruments, theater costumes, crayons and construction paper, decreased by 68 percent, or $7.2 million, since the start of the 2006-2007 school year. Spending on partnerships with cultural institutions has fallen by 31 percent. So while the number of arts teachers is up, the means for doing their job have been slashed.

Advocates for the arts argue that the decrease in spending is the result of a larger problem in the school system: increased (and understandable) pressure on principals to allocate resources for test prep and improving math and literacy scores, at the expense of a well-rounded education. Since 2007, when the Department of Education ended dedicated per-student arts funding, school principals have had discretion over how to spend monies earmarked for arts funding, according to Paul King, executive director for the Office of the Arts and Special Projects at the city’s Department of Education. And some, indeed, some have spent it on arts: From 2004 to 2009, the number of arts teachers has increased by 14.5 percent. But nearly 20 percent of city’s roughly 1,600 public schools still lack a certified arts teacher in even one of the four arts disciplines: art, music, theater and dance.

School principals “are getting a mixed message from the Department of Education,” said Jerry Ross, dean of the School of Education at St. John’s University. “The chancellor says, ‘Don’t forget about the arts. I gave you money for the arts’-but they’re being evaluated on test scores.” New York City schools get grades just like students do, from A through F. And “85 percent of the ‘School Progress Report’ [prepared annually for each school] is based on improvements of test scores,” said Doug Israel, director of policy and research at the Center for Arts Education. “And this determines whether or not a school is going to stay open or closed. This determines principal bonuses and teacher bonuses.”

Victoria Bousquet, whose teenage sons attend H.S. 590, Medgar Evers Preparatory School, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said she did a lot of research into what kind of commitment to the arts area schools made when she was picking the one her children would attend, and she found it varied drastically. “A lot of people regard arts as one of those by-the-way things, but it’s an important part of having kids engaged in school,” said Ms. Bousquet. “My younger son was in the marching band last year, and having to perform in front of people certainly made him more confident in himself.”

Rose Greco, assistant principal at M.S. 421 in Manhattan, said, “Arts are literacy, too. They’re another form of reading, writing and communicating. All the things we’re trying to teach in literacy are also embedded in the arts.”

The decision about whether, and to what degree, to offer the arts in public schools hasn’t always been up to principals. In 1997, Mayor Giuliani and the Department of Education founded a program called Project ARTS (arts restoration throughout the schools), which allocated roughly $64 per pupil for the specific purpose of hiring new arts teachers, purchasing arts supplies and fostering partnerships with cultural institutions. The money had to be spent in one of these areas. The initiative was part of an attempt to restore funding for the arts in education to levels it had been before the 1970s, when the city faced a fiscal crisis and drastically cut spending, letting more than 14,000 teachers go-mainly arts and music instructors.

 

Nearly 20 percent of the city’s public schools still lack a certified teacher in even one of the arts disciplines.

“In essence, a generation of city schoolchildren grew up with little or no exposure to the arts,” reads a briefing paper prepared for the Committee on Education in 2009, referring to the generation from the 1970s through the founding of Project ARTS.

Today, the schools still receive more than $60 per pupil, technically earmarked for arts education. The allocated amount will be $61.85 in fiscal year 2011, according to Education Department spokesperson Matt Mittenthal, down from $63.44 in fiscal year 2007. But the money is now labeled “Supplemental Arts Funding”-a pretty phrase that comes with no requirements or restrictions on how the funds should be used, and each principal may spend it as he or she sees fit.

“The sad thing is that we’re at a point where art is not a mandate in the school system,” said Tom Cahill, executive director of Studio in a School, an organization founded in 1977 in response to the fiscal crisis that, in his words, “devastated city arts education.”

Mr. Israel said he fears that without a guarantee that principals will devote resources to the arts, “more and more, students [will be] forced to cram and memorize for standardized tests. They’re not being taught to think and understand, discuss and rationalize, be creative and innovative. They’re being taught to be test-takers.” He called the situation a “tale of two cities,” where half of New York’s public-school students receive art, music, dance and theater-and the other half may haphazardly receive the arts in one grade and not another, or not at all, according to the priorities of each principal. Inner-city schools, where test scores may be lower, are more likely to have the arts cut first.

“Convert a music room to a reading lab. That’s the first step. Then you’re asking a music teacher to deliver music by pushing a cart around to different rooms. And then the music program withers,” Mr. Israel said.

For Celeste Douglas, principal at M.S. 57, Ron Brown Academy, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that hypothetical became her reality. In 2006, Ms. Douglas had to convert a music practice room to a regular classroom, due to space and budget concerns. The school hasn’t offered music instruction since.

But “principals have to be savvy,” she said. Ms. Douglas partnered with a program called Broadway Junior, which is supported by the Schubert Foundation, to bring musical theater to her school, and she also received a School Arts Support Initiative grant. The impact was immediately visible, she said.

“The arts revived my school community. I’ve seen increased attendance … behavior problems have really decreased. And I’ve seen increased parent involvement,” said Ms. Douglas. Going forward, “our children will never love school if we don’t give them something else. You’ll find kids checking out of school in the second grade … because they think school is all about reading and math,” she argued. “You’ve got to find a hook,” she said. With the help of Broadway Junior and the grant funding, her students put on a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie this year. Over a hundred parents attended the show, said Ms. Douglas-turnout only matched by the school’s academic awards ceremony and barbecue. “You hear them saying, ‘I didn’t think my child could do this.”

A resolution currently before the City Council would endorse a measure calling for school principals to spend more than $60 per student on the arts. But it’s been in limbo since it was first introduced, in 2007, and would still have to be made policy by the mayor even if passed; the Center for Arts Education does not expect the resolution to pass under the current administration. They have had some Democratic mayoral hopefuls commit to it, and are optimistic for action at a later date, said Mr. Israel.

Of course, the Department of Education and the Mayor may choose to restore dedicated funding whenever they see fit. For now, however, it remains up to principals to determine what k
ind of arts education this generation of city schoolchildren receive.

editorial@observer.com