Spelling - and art. History - and art.

Spelling, says Megan Shada, is her favorite subject. It didn't used to be, the earnest fifth-grader explains, but that's changed. Why? "Because of sculpture," she answers quickly, looking a bit surprised that the question need even be asked.

Spelling and sculpture. It may sound like an odd pairing, but at the Kenwood Elementary School in Kearney, Neb., the intertwining of art and academics is nothing unusual. Here students learn about shapes from the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, farm animals from the paintings of Grandma Moses, and basic concepts of physics while designing mobiles inspired by Alexander Calder.

Art is expected to enlighten all the learning that goes on at this and a network of other schools that are taking part in an ambitious experiment in arts education.

"It's a holistic approach," says Vicki Rosenberg, senior program officer for the Getty Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles, which sponsors the program. It teaches schools to "place art at the very core of the curriculum."

After decades of neglect, the notion of the essential nature of arts education is winning fresh support in many schools. The Getty program reflects the deep-seated belief of many arts advocates that giving art a central place in a school's curriculum enhances creativity, stimulates student interest, and provides a glue that can connect seemingly disparate disciplines.

But a discipline-based approach like that supported by the Getty goes a step further.

While some schools focus on either the creation of art by students, or on exposing students to the art of others, advocates of disciplined-based arts education (DBAE) say such approaches don't go nearly far enough. They believe that arts education should include art making, art criticism, art history, and aesthetics, and that these disciplines, to the extent possible, should be incorporated into lessons throughout the school day.

That's why the Getty has spent more than $10 million over the past decade to set up six regional centers in Nebraska, California, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and Ohio to promote DBAE in both public and private schools.

While the Getty estimates that it has now offered assistance or support in establishing DBAE to schools in about 500 districts nationwide, Kenwood Elementary is one of only 35 schools in the country partnering with Getty in a DBAE effort that has included both the creation of a curriculum and the training of teachers.

(Of those 35, 18 are also receiving funding from the Annenberg Foundation in Saint David, Pa. The Annenberg contribution to the project is expected to reach $4.5 million by 2001.)

Huddling with Van Gogh

At Kenwood, the program is now midway through its second year. In kindergarten, students huddle around paintings by Vincent van Gogh as they explore questions about feelings and identity. ("How does 'Starry Night' make you feel?" "Why did Van Gogh paint his own picture? How would you paint yours?")

A second-grade class studying the history of the Southwestern United States ponders a diorama depicting a native ceremony indigenous to that area. In third grade, social-studies students talk about the way in which knowledge passes from one generation to another as they study a painting called "The Banjo Lesson," in which a young boy takes instruction from an older man.

But the spelling-sculpture conjunction in Megan's class is perhaps the most creative connection of art to academics. Chris Knoell, the teacher, says the kids used to groan when he passed out a new list of words for them to learn each week. Hoping to turn that reluctance around, he began pairing each spelling list with a piece of sculpture the class would study. The lesson would include a letter written to the sculptor or the sculpture itself, asking questions or making comments about the work of art.

Suddenly the kids began to look forward to the class.

Mr. Knoell admits he was initially a bit skeptical about the whole notion of DBAE. "I was afraid it was just going to turn into another add-on and our day is already short enough," he explains. Seeing the program in action changed his mind. "The integration part has been the biggest seller for me," he says.

Knoell says he likes the "mix of lots of different skills and concepts" that results from weaving art into other disciplines. Also, he says, adding art to the mix, "catches [the students'] interest." When a concept from another discipline is combined with art, he notes, "the kids get a better understanding of it."

One of the challenges faced by a program like this one, however, is accountability. Kenwood principal Pat Zeimet readily acknowledges that claims for the success of the program are not yet buttressed by test scores or hard numbers of any sort. "It's more just teacher observation and anecdotal information up to this point," she says.

Mrs. Zeimet and others hope that help is on its way in this area. Getty and Annenberg have a hired a professional testing service that will begin a three-year study of students at Kenwood and other of the 35 schools involved in the program, to record the gains connected to their study of art.

Our parents, the art boosters

Meanwhile, however, local parents have jumped enthusiastically on the bandwagon. Although many area families were not typical arts boosters - the school is located in a working-class neighborhood with almost half of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunch -they have come to appreciate the involvement with art their children are experiencing.

"The parents understand that in today's society you've got to do things differently and that you need creativity," says Tim Shada, president of the local parent-teacher organization and father of Megan. "Art is not just a paintbrush and a piece of paper. It's another outlet, another way to learn."

And for Megan, one of the joys of the experience has been learning about some things her parents don't know. She says she's been able to instruct her whole family about sculpture. She loves it, she admits shyly, when "Mom and Dad say, 'Wow, Megan, you've learned a lot!' "

*E-mail comments to coeymanm@csps.com

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