Amid the roar of a furnace heated to 2,100 degrees F., the renowned Italian glass blower Lino Tagliapietro puts the final touches on a vase whose shape and hue suggest a massive tropical fish.
A few yards away, Yesenia Pica labors over a work of her own design. Though less refined than anything in Tagliapietro's oeuvre, it too is remarkable. Ms. Pica is a high school student, and the form at the end of her blowpipe is the first glass she ever made.
The scene of this curious juxtaposition is UrbanGlass, a Brooklyn studio that some artists regard as the nation's premier glass workshop. Once a week, Pica and several other students from a nearby vocational high school come here to practice an art that dates back 5,000 years.
''The closest I ever got to this was drinking from a Coke bottle,'' says Raymond Vasquez, a sophomore who has taken quickly to glass blowing.
The course enrolls only 10 students per semester, but reveals some of the possibilities and pitfalls of arts education in America. While it succeeds in engaging students like Mr. Vasquez on a creative and analytical level, it remains outside his school's core curriculum.
Similar tensions permeate the epic drama of school reform, which casts arts education in the role of catalyst. The arts take center stage whenever there is talk of improving teaching, but when the dialogue turns to money, the arts are sent to the wings.
''There's no question about it,'' says Doug Herbert, director of arts in education at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). ''The arts are at risk in our schools today.''
Ironically, recent surveys show that parents and educators overwhelmingly believe the arts belong in the core curriculum. Congress, in a rare showing of bipartisan support, endorsed a similar view last year by passing the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.
But if everyone is for arts education, why do so few students have access to courses in drama and dance? Why do 3 of every 5 high schools, according to a recent Department of Education survey, permit students to graduate without taking a single course in the arts?
Answers to such questions are hard to come by, but advocates for arts education say it comes down to priorities. However enthusiastically parents and policymakers may endorse the arts, they still favor spending on math, science, reading, and social studies when money grows tight.
The 10-week course at UrbanGlass costs nearly $750 per pupil, which includes utilities, materials, overhead, and teaching fees. Funding comes from the NEA, the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), and Brooklyn's Independence Savings Bank.
Yet the budget ax may shave off some of the state's contribution to the UrbanGlass program next year. Since 1989, legislators have cut NYSCA's overall budget by nearly 50 percent and its arts-education budget by 37 percent.
Paradox of state arts support
In contrast to the cutbacks in New York, overall funding by state arts agencies nationwide has risen to $266 million, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. While that figure marks the fourth highest level in 10 years, its growth does not offset a larger decline in the NEA's grant budget. Nor does it make up for the reduction in the number of arts instructors in public schools.
Partnerships between schools and cultural organizations, including artist-in-residency programs, are common ways to enhance arts education.
Learning to blow glass supplements the students' work at George Westinghouse High School, where they are training to become opticians, jewelrymakers, and carpenters.
But instead of treating the class as an extracurricular activity, some funders suggest, Westinghouse and UrbanGlass might emulate the Manchester Craftsman's Guild in Pittsburgh. The guild, a community-arts organization that offers teenagers instruction in photography and ceramics, is integrating its programs into the regular school day for local students.
Mr. Herbert and other funders say recent national research confirms what some teachers and parents already knew intuitively - that the arts are critical to education and learning.
The new findings support inclusion of the arts as a discrete subject area and as a teaching method to be used in other disciplines. The President's Council on the Arts and the Humanities summarized them in a new pamphlet titled ''Eloquent Evidence: Arts at the Core of Learning.''
Jerrold Ross oversaw some of the research as director of the National Arts Education Research Center at New York University. By surveying 60 teachers in 23 states, the center found that academic achievement and test scores rose after teachers incorporated the arts into math, writing, and the social sciences. For example, students at an Oklahoma City high school improved their grasp of geometry by studying visual illusions, sculpture, and architecture. Test scores rose an average of 20 points for male students and 32 points for female students.
The center also found that studying the arts helped teens who were at risk or academically challenged to gain proficiency in critical thinking and problem solving.
Such findings lend credence to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. A developmental psychologist at Harvard University, Gardner believes that ''not all of us learn in the same way'' and that education and testing require fundamental reform.
All of this comes as no surprise to Zesty Meyers, an artist who teaches the course at UrbanGlass. Mr. Meyers says he struggled with what was diagnosed as dyslexia and other learning disabilities for years before finding a school that met his needs.
Nearly half his students also have learning disabilities. But the glass studio serves as a great equalizer because it draws on a broader range of skills than they exercise in traditional classrooms. Indeed, it is hard for an observer to tell which students have disabilities and which do not.
Meyers makes a special effort to engage their various senses by sketching on a chalk board, giving oral instructions, and working hand in hand with students. It is not easy.
''I'm still trying to figure out a way to get [through] to them,'' he says of the entire class. ''Some kids pick it up quickly, but when they come back the next week, they seem to have forgotten everything.
''They're learning a process with an incredible amount of rules,'' Meyers says. And ''an hour of hard work can come undone in an instant.''
Although career opportunities for glass artists abound, few students are likely to follow in Meyers's footsteps. Yet the course instills values and fosters skills that are useful in all walks of life. Students are improving their hand-eye coordination, for example, and growing more accustomed to teamwork.
''I don't like to be around some of the kids at my school because they're always getting into trouble,'' says Allimus Cargill, a junior who keeps mostly to himself. ''This class is different. I like talking to some of the kids here, and I like learning how to work together with them.''
Art course steers kids from violence
Teenagers in a Tacoma, Wash., neighborhood associated with poverty and gang violence are taking a similar course through an artist-in-residence program at Jason Lee Middle School. Earlier this fall, says instructor Debra Moore, members of two rival gangs worked together to create a chandelier made from bottles they found and fused. Funding for the program comes from the city of Tacoma and private grants. The school district provides space, utilities, and one teacher. There is talk of starting similar programs in Detroit and Los Angeles.
Meyers agrees that the students in such courses are learning something more valuable than how to blow glass. They are getting a lesson, he says, in the subtle arts of patience, perseverance, and perfection.