Arts come back to school in Georgia

Here’s a breakdown of the percentage of Georgia’s 2,264 public schools with access to various forms of arts classes.

Elementary schools

Visual arts, 77%; music, 87%; dance, 9%; theater, 8%; creative writing, 18%

Middle schools

Visual arts, 86% music, 90%; dance, 7%; theater,28%; creative writing, 22%

High schools

Visual arts, 93%; music, 92%; dance, 21%; theater, 67%; creative writing, 19%

Source: Georgia Council for the Arts.

Fourth-grader Justin Rhodes, 10, shook his wispy limbs to loosen up for his big performance. Then he walked in front of his class and acted out a scene from “Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin,” a book they were assigned to read. He got kudos from classmates including for the way he “enunciated” his words.

His school, Cobb County’s Powder Springs Elementary, is one of many Georgia schools trying to improve student performance by bringing back the arts. After years of emphasizing the courses needed for technological workplace skills, and cutting spending for dance, music, performing arts and visual arts, schools are citing data that show students in arts classes and programs do better academically.

The data has caught the attention of state leaders like Gov. Nathan Deal, who hope a better educated workforce will attract more employers and high-paying jobs. Deal commissioned a task force to examine arts education in Georgia and, among other things, produce numbers detailing how arts classes help students.

In 2013, the percentage of Georgia elementary schools with visual arts classes who met standards in the state’s annual assessment in science was five percentage points higher than for elementary schools without such classes, the task force found. Middle schools with music classes fared five percentage points better in math on that year’s state assessment than middle schools without music classes, according to the report. Georgia students in schools with arts programs also fared better on the SAT.

Georgia’s top elected school official, Superintendent Richard Woods, is also singing the tune that children who take arts classes make better students, and is pursuing ways to get more schools to add the arts to their curriculum. He said at a recent education workshop that about 40 percent of Georgia Tech students have a music background.

Educators say arts classes make students more excited about school. As a result, they participate more in class and retain more of what they’ve learned.

Justin said acting out scenes from that book helped him remember more about it. Using the arts in classes like reading has helped him become a better student, Justin said.

“I honestly just forget some of what I learned,” Justin said. “With this, I remember. It reminds me what I did.”

Georgia still lags in arts

But an arts resurgence hasn’t taken place in all Georgia schools, and some barriers to that remain.

The number of Georgia public schools with students taking fine arts courses has increased by about 50 percent since 2010, according to state education department data. Yet, state data show there are fewer arts teachers. There were 105 fewer teachers listed under the fine arts category during the 2014-15 school year than five years earlier, state education officials said.

Georgia is slightly behind the rest of the nation in the percentage of schools with arts classes, according to the task force report.

The greatest obstacle it cited is money.

Sixty-six school districts cut or eliminated fine arts and music programs since 2009, according to a 2014 Georgia Budget & Policy Institute study. Two-thirds of those districts did not restore them, that study found.

In May, the Atlanta school district eliminated 18 music teacher positions for the coming school year, largely citing a lack of interest in the respective schools. Money was a factor, too.

Arts classes are typically in wealthier districts with higher percentages of white students, research shows. Fine arts programs such as creative writing, dance and theater are far more prevalent in metro Atlanta and schools near other big cities in Georgia, like Athens, Columbus and Savannah, the state task force found.

Many schools and school districts are now playing catch-up.

Some Cobb middle schools shut down theater programs during the Great Recession, and several high schools went from two to one visual arts teachers. Cobb has restored some of those teaching positions in recent years, officials said.

Some educators say many districts beefed up their curriculum to prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – at the expense of the arts.

“In Georgia, and throughout the nation, the arts have suffered,” said Ruth Caillouet, an associate dean at Georgia Gwinnett College and a former public school teacher. “This drive toward STEM pulled away resources from the arts.”

There are only a handful of college courses for arts education, Caillouet lamented.

Educators now use the acronym STEAM to include the A for arts in what they believe is the solution to classroom success.

Arts educators point to state and federal actions they believe will help.

State education department officials this month plan to unveil proposed requirements for a new STEAM certification program that they hope will encourage more public schools to create arts programs. A new federal education law has been widely hailed for reducing demands for student testing, but arts educators are excited because it also opens the door for more federal funds for arts programs.

The new math

Powder Springs Elementary School Principal Debbie Broadnax started its arts-integration program, believing it was the best way to boost reading and increase classroom participation.

“They’re more engaged with the lesson,” said Justin’s teacher, Amy Myers. “It shows in the quality of their work because they believe in it.”

Chrisley Thomas, another fourth-grade teacher at the school, also said her students raise their hands more in class. She’s also noticed they’re better behaved.

On a recent Thursday, music blared from speakers outside the school. In one fifth-grade classroom, students gathered in a circle, each tapping a pair of drumsticks. Band practice? No. It was a math class and the students were showing what they’d learned about polygons. One by one, students walked into the center of the circle and tapped the sticks, one for each side of a particular shape.

Several Cobb schools are doing their own research to see if arts integration will work for their students. But teacher training takes months, and some schools are hesitant to give teachers too much time away from their students.

Cherokee’s school district received a $1.9 million federal grant in 2014 to provide arts-integration training to elementary school teachers. Atlanta has an artist-in-residency program at Therrell High School, will have a similar program in two more schools this month and plans to have a program at two more schools. Atlanta has applied for a federal program that will give the district arts supplies, musical instruments and professional development for teachers.

DeKalb and Fulton have had a handful of arts-focused schools since the early 1990s. Gwinnett is scheduled to open a middle school this fall that will be STEAM-focused with band, dance and orchestra programs. It soon hopes to have labs in all of its middle schools where students can learn how to create music soundtracks and jingles.

Dream budgets and realities

Pete Talton became interested in acting as an eighth-grader in the Gwinnett school system.

“This was like the pot of gold. People were listening to me,” he said.

Talton is now a drama teacher at White County High, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. When he arrived there four years ago, Talton said, the lighting system in the school’s theater was obsolete. School officials asked him to write a budget proposal to fix the biggest problems ($500); how much money he’d like to have ($10,000); and a dream budget to get the theater in tip-top shape ($25,000).

He got $25,000.

Students in arts classes do well in school, Talton says. The school’s graduation rate is around 90 percent, which is in the top five percent statewide. The drama club has been invited to perform at an event in Scotland in August, but it would take another dream budget to get all 30 students there. The price tag is $7,000 per student. The school district doesn’t have the money, and Talton hasn’t been able to find corporate donors.

Broadnax, the Powder Springs Elementary principal, understands tight budgets. The school started a foundation for its arts programs, raising $1,300 so far. In the meantime, she’s encouraging other Cobb elementary school principals to start their own arts-integration programs.

“Hopefully,” she said. “It’s going to catch on.”