Time to Take Arts in APS to ‘EPIC’ Level

Two weeks after our EPIC State of the District, I remain in absolute awe of not only the vast numbers of Atlanta Public Schools students who helped narrate our tales of transformation but the variety and sheer expertise of their performances. (If you haven’t viewed it yet, check my EPIC blog for videos and photos!)

The dancing, the singing, the music, the set designs, camera work and even shadow puppets – all APS students … even North Atlanta orchestra’s meticulous versions of the themes of Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean and “Glory” from Selma!

Inspired by our students and the educators who teach them, I am recommitting to explore the viability and concepts of a performing and fine arts school in APS and vet some scenarios, budgets and facility and program concepts during this school year.

The research is extensive and clear. An arts education benefits students by reducing disciplinary infractions, increasing compassion for others, and improving academic achievement. Arts and culture improve school engagement and college aspirations, as well as safety, health, and general well-being. See detailed studies here and here. For an overview of arts and education research, see the wealth of information at ArtsEdSearch.

Under the leadership of Sara Womack, the district’s fine and performing arts coordinator (and reigning winner of the APyeS Schools First Award!), we have taken a full assessment of the arts within Atlanta Public Schools. From this audit, we found that APS has more music programs than many other comparable school districts. We learned that every APS school, except one, provides a visual art program during the school day, and all but one provides music instruction during the school day.

We currently employ 71 art teachers, 17 dance teachers, 95 music teachers and 11 theater teachers.

We still have areas of growth in the arts, such as increasing rigor and student recruitment in arts-related content areas, improve the quality of such programming and providing equitable performance facilities and resources across the district.

We’ve had a few starts, including discussion around the district’s five-year arts plan, which proposed an arts high school as a possible project, with the Board in 2018.

Here’s how the concept is evolving: An APS fine and performing arts high school would develop diverse artists, scholars, and arts advocates through professional arts training supported by a college preparatory academic education, unlike any other school in the region. Also, students with artistic talent may be motivated to graduate early or with more focus for college or career with the engagement of a fine and performing arts high school.

The arts curriculum could be developed and taught by arts educators and professional artists in a conservatory-based approach with a goal of authentic arts-making experiences. If modeled after the most successful arts professional preparatory schools around the nation, the school would be structured as a public/non-profit partnership model under the governance of a non-profit board. Quality teachers would deliver academics, and our arts educators would work hand-in-hand with the professional arts community to deliver the highest quality arts program. 

This approach, if adopted, would provide expertise and real-life experiences in order to prepare students for success in college or career. Students would choose a focused arts discipline, such as dance, music, theatre, or visual arts, and will be challenged to demonstrate, collaboration, leadership, curiosity, quality, and commitment. Programming will likely include a heavy schedule of performances and showings, as well as significant connections with community arts organizations.
And I think that we have more momentum than ever, especially with some of our most generous partners. The Cultural Experience Project with the City of Atlanta and the Multi-Visit Program with the Woodruff Arts Center has been growing stronger and stronger over the past several years, giving all our students rich experiences with arts- and cultural-related field trips. Research conducted with our students, who received multiple field trips to the Woodruff Arts Center, experienced significantly greater gains on their standardized test scores after the first year than did the control students, which translated to roughly 87 additional days of learning. For more details see the study with Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas here and here.

One partnership that has blossomed over the last year is one with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation to provide band and orchestra instruments to our students. It started with the foundation’s assessment of schools in need and detailing recommendations and areas of success. (One happy highlight of their report: APS’ percentage of music programs in our schools is more than in other districts studied by the foundation to date!)

To date, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation has awarded more than $310,000 in instrument grants:

  • Mays High School – $15,374
  • Washington High School – $46,622
  • Therrell High School – $39,695
  • Jackson High School – $122,231
  • Hope-Hill Elementary – $44,461
  • Hollis Innovation Academy – $42,225

That’s music to my ears! And there’s more to come from the foundation, including an instrument drive in March, Music in Our Schools Month … and from the district … with the arts.

In the upcoming months, we will engage the community in the district’s Facilities Master Plan, which may include a detailed proposal for performing and fine arts school. The goals of the FMP are to create flexible, equitable, innovative and long-lasting environments; strengthen communities equitably through quality schools that align facility and academic objectives and provide an equitable distribution of instructional space among all facilities.

I think this concept is looking well-aligned so we may have “struck the right note!” I’ll keep you posted once we have “composed” some of the big ideas!

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