In city of arts, schools start to get their share

Last year, elementary school principal Eileen Churchill was surprised when she examined her school's standardized test scores. Nava Elementary is located in a low- to middle-income neighborhood of Santa Fe, N.M., where scores usually lag behind state results. But in last spring's tests, almost all fourth-graders scored 15 to 35 points higher than usual in vocabulary and reading comprehension.

When Ms. Churchill and other staff looked for explanations, they homed in on one possible cause: the children's participation in ARTreach, a program provided by Fine Arts for Children and Teens (FACT).

While you'd expect Santa Fe children to benefit from living in an arts-rich environment, this was not the case a decade ago. In a city that boasts hundreds of galleries and a world-class arts market, the Santa Fe public schools provided no arts instruction to elementary school children.

That was not unusual. In school systems across the United States, art programs have disappeared in the face of tight budgets. But in recent years, the arts have received more attention as a way to engage kids better in school. A recent MacArthur Foundation study found that art programs could significantly influence students' arts ability - as well as their standardized test scores. And in Santa Fe, a number of organizations have sprung up to offer fine arts, theater, and dance.

The Santa Fe Arts Initiative is housed in a public schools office, but the young nonprofit receives no public funds. "We can't afford to depend on the public schools," says Arts Initiative director Rosa Weiss. "This year, the school budget came up $2 million short - you can imagine where they would have slashed the money from if we were on the payroll."

Instead, the Arts Initiative seeks funding from private donors and city funds. It also holds an annual ball to fund its arts-resource room and teacher training, and provide artists in the classroom. "We first ask teachers what they want, what they're teaching, and then provide artists to meet that need," Ms. Weiss explains. "An example might be a tinsmith who shows students how to create work through this traditional craft which can be linked to lessons in the history, geography, and economics of Northern New Mexico."

Other organizations operate more independently but still in tandem with schools. "We bypass the district office altogether and contract separately with each school in which we operate," explains Catherine Oppenheimer, executive director of the National Dance Institute, which now offers a dance program, free of charge, in 11 elementary schools. It too, finds plenty of enthusiasm for its services, though no offers of additional support.

ARTreach, the program at Nava Elementary, was started in 1990 by Rosanne Kadis and her colleague Juliet Myers. The mission is to provide arts instruction for any child, regardless of ability to pay. "What drew us together was the recognition that art had been a transformational experience in our lives which we had both desperately needed," Ms. Kadis explains. "We didn't want any child with such a need to be denied the opportunity."

At first, the two traded teaching services for a place to work. "For years, we were basically itinerant teachers, going anywhere we were asked and could find space," Ms. Myers says.

The team finally settled in a warehouse and started giving classes for young people, nearly 50 percent of whom were on scholarship. Still, they wanted to expand their scope, so they jumped at the opportunity to receive needed resources in return for doing in-school workshops. Teachers systemwide applied for the workshops - and started getting lessons in different ways to interact with their students.

"We never asked who the 'problem students' were," says Kadis, who believes one of their greatest successes was in shifting the perception of teachers about their own students. "Suddenly, they'd see that a certain boy or girl could focus on a subject and could follow through on a project," Kadis says. "The teacher would see the child had gifts that weren't being accessed."

"We start out with a historical component, showing original art or posters and asking the children their opinions," Myers says. "Then we demonstrate a technique or how to use materials. The demonstrations launch the kids into their work of making art, they have time to explore and experiment. Each session ends with a critique, always positive. The children are delighted to know their ideas are valued."

In 1997, a Santa Fe-based funder suggested FACT do a pilot program at Sweeney Elementary School, where a majority of the 500-plus students come from low-income families.

FACT received a grant to operate at Sweeney for five years, expanding into an after-school program and summer camp.

The group also finally got space in a portable classroom on school grounds. Children rush to enter the Sweeney ARTreach portable, a bright, well-ordered space. As they learn about self-portraits, bilingual instructor Matthew Peinado points to pictures by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. "How do you think she feels?" Mr. Peinado asks the children. "Sad and mad," one girl says. "Both sad and a little mad."

FACT also started ARTreach at Nava Elementary. "Because it's small, we could immediately see the impact," Kadis says. For one long-term project, students researched musicians in the symphony orchestra. They observed the musicians play and drew pictures of each instrument, then recreated the entire symphony orchestra in clay models. The complete artwork was displayed at the annual "Day at the Opera" at the Santa Fe Opera grounds.

This year, Nava's third through sixth grades will be tested to gain a baseline of skills and to find out if the impact of the Fine Arts program on fourth-graders is sustained. But for Principal Churchill, progress is clear: "Just talking with the children, I can observe how much more vocabulary they use and how much more comfortable they are expressing themselves."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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