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In Virginia Beach, 'Respect' for the Arts

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VIRGINIA BEACH, VA--To Stephena H. Runyan, art is not a "mystical'' process that cannot be taught. It is a subject area that, like English or mathematics, has a body of knowledge and skills that can be passed on to all children.

As art coordinator for the public schools here, Ms. Runyan presides over a highly praised program that does just that.

But at too many other schools, she says, art teachers limit their effectiveness by considering their subject somehow different from other disciplines. Instead of employing a structured academic approach, they leave it up to students to "create'' on their own.

Such attitudes have kept the arts on the curricular periphery, she argues.

"Art educators too frequently think they have to separate themselves to successfully carry out an effective program,'' Ms. Runyan says. "That's not true.''

"If art teachers want respect, they have to have everything that math teachers and social-studies teachers have.''

Comprehensive Guide

In the Virginia Beach program, they do.

Beginning in 1977, district officials developed a comprehensive curriculum guide for arts instruction in grades K-12, similar to guides for other subjects. It outlined instructional goals for all students in each grade, together with sample lessons for meeting those objectives.

The guide stressed instruction in art history and criticism, as well as art production, so that students would learn about art, not merely "do'' art.

To teach the curriculum, the district hired only certified art specialists--there are currently 100--and required them to fill out detailed lesson plans showing how their instruction adhered to the guidelines.

The efforts have won accolades from many quarters. In 1985, the district was cited as a national model by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts in its report, "Beyond Creating: The Place for Art in America's Schools.''

And last week, the Congressionally mandated report on arts education issued by the National Endowment for the Arts called Virginia Beach "an outstanding example'' of effective districtwide leadership in improving art education.

The report quotes a previous study in praising the program: "If all school districts were so well organized, so efficiently and effectively administered, and so enlightened concerning both their general educational program and the role of art in that program, then art education in this country would rest on solid footing.''

Standardized Curriculum

The 64,623-student district, the second-largest in the state, began to strengthen its art program in 1966, when it used federal Title I funds to hire art specialists for elementary schools.

But it was not until 1977, with the adoption of the districtwide curriculum guide, that the comprehensive art program was fully in place.

It is based, Ms. Runyan says, on the belief that all students--those with special gifts and those without them, those from the district's affluent oceanside resort area and those from the so-called Great Dismal Swamp, a rural region--should learn to understand and appreciate artistic expression before they graduate.

The policy also provides curricular continuity in a district with a highly mobile population. The four military installations located within city limits mean that Virginia Beach students frequently move in and out of the district, or to other schools within the district.

The curricular guide outlines a comprehensive program for instruction in grades K-6, when art is required for all students. Additional guides are provided for the elective junior-high-school art course and for the five high-school courses the district offers.

The program leads teachers through a sequential course of study, in which one lesson builds on another. In the past, Ms. Runyan says, art teachers had tended to repeat lessons already learned.

"We don't have to let kids mix paint every year to know what yellow and blue make,'' she says.

Met Initial Resistance

As in other school systems that have imposed standardized curricula, Virginia Beach's art program initially met resistance from teachers who had been accustomed to greater flexibility. In fact, according to the endowment's new report, several teachers were put on probation because their teaching did not reflect the system's goals.

But since that time, most teachers have become advocates of the program. A survey cited by the endowment found that 90 percent of the Virginia Beach teachers favor the curriculum.

Teachers recognize that its goals help students move naturally to more advanced topics, according to Cynthia Flegal, a teacher at Birdneck Elementary School. "It's objective-oriented,'' she says. "It doesn't stifle anything.''

Battling 25-Year-Old Ideas

The curriculum's increased emphasis on studying works of art and critical evaluation of art--rather than on making art--has also been controversial.

"What we battle are ideas about art education from 25 years ago,'' says Ms. Runyan.

Often, she says, the battle is waged with prospective teachers, who have usually been trained solely in studio techniques. The district offers little release time for inservice training, she notes, and instead relies on a great deal of detailed instruction within the curriculum guides.

For example, the guide for the one-semester high-school course on "art appreciation,'' which has become the most popular art elective, provides extensive background information on the artists and their work to help teachers who may lack such knowledge.

The methods needed for teaching art history and criticism differ from those art teachers have traditionally employed, but can frequently enhance the creative aspect of the instruction.

For example, in a 2nd-grade class at the Birdneck school last week, pupils spent the entire 50-minute art period discussing prints by such artists as Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, and Charles de Muth to illustrate the difference between realistic, abstract, and other forms of painting.

The point of the lesson, says Ms. Flegal, who taught the class, was to show the principles behind the original artwork the pupils had completed the previous week, not to drill them in art history.

"We don't want to stress facts and names,'' she says. "We want them to learn from the prints, as opposed to learning the name of the artist and the date.''

She adds, however, that "if those things stick with them, fine.''

Not Many Michelangelos

District officials maintain that the increased emphasis on history and criticism is essential to their mission of educating all students about art, not merely those who are talented or interested.

"We are not trying to develop artists here,'' says Susan M. Payne, a district specialist in art instruction.

"Realistically,'' Ms. Runyan adds, "we don't think there are many Michelangelos in Virginia Beach.''

If students are talented or interested in further study, she says, the district offers many options, including an elementary pull-out program for gifted and talented students and two Advanced Placement courses in high schools. In addition, students can participate in a regional magnet school for the arts sponsored by the state.

The new emphasis will make all students better "consumers'' of art in the future, officials say.

"By the time they are 20, they are not going to have the little clay models they made in 5th grade,'' says Ms. Runyan. But they will retain the understanding of art concepts they learned.

"If a kid can only say, 'We made so and so,' he didn't learn anything,'' she says.

Others add that the broader instruction improves the quality of the artwork students create.

"Their general knowledge comes out in the finished product,'' says Ms. Flegal.

Last week at a local shopping mall here, the evidence to back up her assertion was on display for all to see. The school system's annual art show, a two-week affair showcasing student art, was in full swing.

But teachers here also say that instruction in art history and criticism often pays dividends in subject areas beyond art, by offering students training in writing, speaking, and critical-thinking skills. One junior-high-school art teacher, for example, will test her students this spring by videotaping them as they give a four- to five-minute presentation on an artist of their choice.

The new art instruction also gives a boost to interdisciplinary work, officials note.

"You can tie the history, where it is appropriate, to the general curriculum,'' Ms. Runyan suggests. "There is no sense in spending three weeks on Egyptian history if the social-studies teacher just covered that.''

Constantly Re-Selling

As the national endowment's report notes, the Virginia Beach program has required a strong commitment from district officials.

Now, some suggest, its future may be in doubt due to the retirement last year of the superintendent and chairman of the school board--both strong supporters of the program. Their successors have not yet given an indication of how they feel about the program.

"We constantly have to re-sell it,'' Ms. Runyan says.

But building-level administrators will help out in the process, she predicts. Because the curriculum guides and lesson-plan requirements have made it easier for them to evaluate teacher performance, she says, they have become strong advocates.

The strongest boosters, however, are the students, she and others note. This year, for example, graphic-arts students from the vocational high school will promote the program by presenting the board with their original designs for a new logo for the school system.

Other students will demonstrate their support for the arts program by continuing to enroll in large numbers in the more advanced courses, teachers say.

"If you merely give students in art classes a piece of paper,'' says Ms. Payne, "they will make something in 10 minutes and get bored.''

"Here,'' she says, "they learn a lesson, they value their artwork, and they value what they have learned. They are anxious to come back.''

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