JOHN ELIOT Elementary School, just outside of Boston, has accomplished what few public schools in the United States have. Here, music and art are fully integrated into the basic curriculum, as well as being taught separately. Even as budget cuts loom, three-quarters of the students (K-5) play an instrument, and the hallways and classrooms are covered with drawings, paintings, sculpture, and mini-tapestries. "If we didn't have the arts, our school would look like a barren wasteland," says Principal Miriam Kronish, as she ushers this reporter around.
For some kids, the day begins with string ensemble - 11 violins and one cello in the 8:30 group. Down the hall, 30 fourth- and fifth-graders sit elbow to elbow on the gymnasium stage for band practice. Full sections of flutes, clarinets, saxophones, and trumpets, and all manner of percussion instruments, provide a robust version of the melody "Abide With Me."
"I decided to play the flute, because I like the way it sounds," says fifth-grader Leora Seri, packing up her instrument after rehearsal. Upon request, she and her classmate Lauren Radomski proudly perform a flute duet with well-rounded tones.
In their classrooms, first-graders clap and stomp to music, learning how to "keep the beat"; third-graders take their weekly recorder lesson; and the fifth-grade class practices singing songs for their upcoming class "musical."
Though music and art specialists visit classrooms on certain days, the regular teachers weave music, movement, drama, and visual arts into their academic subjects as well, Mrs. Kronish says.
One teacher incorporated folk songs about the underground railroad into lessons on American history and Black History Month.
"The kids begin to see the subjects of music and art not as isolated subjects, but as things that really relate to the real world," says Annette DerSarkisian, a music teacher at John Eliot.
Another teacher is currently using movement and drama to make a play about the solar system, in which the kids "act out" the revolution of the planets around the sun.
The arts "not only get [the children] more interested, but it makes them think through what they've learned. It deepens their understanding," says Mrs. DerSarkisian, who has taught music for 25 years. "I think of the arts as a real window to the world."
Last fall, DerSarkisian did a unit on opera with the fifth-graders. They read the libretto to Mozart's "The Magic Flute," listened to the music, and made up games about the plot. Toward the end of the unit, she announced that the class would be taken to Boston to see a performance of the opera.
"When I told them that, the whole class burst into applause and cheered!" DerSarkisian says. "I thought, 'This is something I'd like to have on videotape. No one would believe it!' "
On April 8, however, town residents will have to decide how much they want this tradition of arts emphasis to continue. Like many states and towns across the country facing budgetary shortfalls, Needham has to choose whether to strip more than $2 million from the schools (as dictated by Proposition 2 1/2) or to vote for an override that would lessen the cutback.
"If the people vote yes," Kronish says, "we could get $900,000 more in programs, but we're still going to lose $1 million no matter what. It's very severe."
Among many cuts, music and art will be reduced by one half at the elementary levels. At the high school, where more than 80 percent of the kids had signed up for art classes for next year, 10 semesters of art would be eliminated and one art teacher laid off.
Removing the arts from education, Kronish says, is like pulling key threads out of a beautiful rug: "It's there and you can walk on it, but the richness, the beauty, the texture, and the depth isn't there."