Curriculum

D.C. Schools Chief Plans to Expand Art, Music Offerings

May 17, 2005 3 min read
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The new superintendent of the District of Columbia schools is proposing to revitalize art and music education as part of his strategic-improvement plan.

The proposal for more arts programs would help students prepare for admission to Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Clifford B. Janey called this month for spending $13.1 million out of a proposed annual budget of $775.5 million to hire more teachers and buy supplies and equipment to include the arts in the elementary and middle school curriculum.

Mr. Janey’s plans for arts education, announced at a May 2 community meeting, come at a time of concern nationwide about the state of arts education.

The Washington-based Council for Basic Education found in a March 2004 report that just 7 percent to 8 percent of school districts surveyed were increasing funding for music education, for example. (“Principals’ Poll Shows Erosion Of Liberal Arts Curriculum,” March 17, 2004.)

Mr. Janey, who has been the superintendent of the 67,500-student district for eight months, is centering his plan around Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the system’s college-preparatory arts high school.

The 476-student school provides other academic instruction along with education in dance, literary media, museum studies, music, theater, and visual arts. Students must audition in one of the subjects when they apply to the magnet school.

But of the school district’s 167 schools, 44 have no art teachers and 49 have no music teachers, said Ben Hall, the District of Columbia schools’ music coordinator. Students are required to take one semester each of art and music to graduate from high school.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the president of Washington’s school board and a founder of Duke Ellington, praised the superintendent’s goal, saying she worries that low-income students who audition for spots in the school are not as well prepared as those whose families can afford private lessons.

“He wants to create pathways that kids can follow early on in their education, so that if they want to go to Duke Ellington, they can be prepared,” Ms. Cafritz said of Mr. Janey. “When they audition, the teachers have to look for raw talent.”

School board member Tommy Wells said he thought the proposal had “a good chance” of being passed by the Council of the District of Columbia, which must approve the school system’s budget.

But Iris Toyer, the chairwoman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a local parent group, said schools will have to be creative and make use of partnerships with organizations such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

‘Shortsighted’

Michael Blakeslee, the deputy director of the National Association for Music Education, a Reston, Va.-based membership group representing music educators, said principals and superintendents are under pressure to raise test scores in reading and mathematics because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But trimming music and arts programs, which often help engage students in school, is “adopting a shortsighted strategy,” he said.

“The general suspicion is that superintendents are running after annual yearly progress,” Mr. Blakeslee said. “It’s heartening to see superintendents who acknowledge the importance of music education.”

As the chairman of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, is leading an effort to highlight the role that the arts can play in bolstering student achievement. (“ECS Wants to Put Arts Back on States’ High-Priority List,” April 13, 2005.)

In his state, Mr. Huckabee signed legislation that requires 40 minutes of instruction each week in visual art or music for students in grades 1-6. The state department of education will give schools a $100 stipend for each class.

Already Behind?

Robert Gill, the principal of Kelly Miller Middle School, a 520-student Washington school that opened in September, wants to offer instrumental-music classes for students interested in careers in music.

Mr. Gill, a former band director at the city’s Cardozo High School, has started a band and chorus at Kelly Miller. He also says he’s considering hiring more music teachers and establishing an artist-in-residence program in which professional musicians would help teach classes.

“In some cases, it may keep kids off the streets, it may help them come to school every day, because they want to make sure they’re here for band or choir,” Mr. Gill said of music education.

With about 50 students in the band, many are just learning to play instruments.

“By the time they’ve come here,” Mr. Gill said, “they should have had two to three years’ experience.”

When he was Cardozo High’s band director, Mr. Gill saw how music helped students get college scholarships. Thirteen of his former students, in fact, have become band directors at schools across the country.

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