By Joe Lugara

Taking the ‘LEAP’

  |  Education Advice & Tips  

Arts Ed. Program Diversifies Student Learning

"People learn by doing, and art is a way to capture that natural way to learn. It's what separates us from other animals."

In the field of education, art comes before math, history, and science — at least alphabetically. As for its position among most administrators, it usually tags along somewhere after zoology, drawing attention only when it's time to pare the budget. Ila Lane Gross and Alice Krieger are New Yorkers, friends, educators, and fellow artists who recognize a simple fact: Creativity is central to the learning process. They also understand that if artists and art educators don't promote arts-in-education, it's a certainty that no one else ever will. These realizations crystallized in 1977 with the establishment of their own arts-in-education program, Learning Through an Expanded Arts Program, known more briefly, and bravely, as LEAP. In the quarter-century since Gross and Krieger crafted LEAP in their own apartment, the non-profit program has spread to over 400 schools in the New York area, affecting more than 220,000 students and 8,500 teachers yearly in grades K-12 in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island, along with schools in New Jersey (in Jersey City and Montclair) and in Greenwich, Conn. Teaching experts brought in by the program have introduced students to disciplines as diverse as filmmaking, opera singing, robotics, and archeology. LEAP's creators have developed a program to take students beyond the traditional art classroom idea of manipulating and managing elements of color, form, composition and movement for their own sake. The goal is not necessarily to turn out artists, but to use creative activity to learn about anything and everything, from the sciences to social issues. Like many organizations, LEAP started small. In 1977, Gross was a mom with a child at the Cathedral School at St. John the Divine. Having been both an exhibiting artist and a teacher, she was asked by the school to "do something” with the art program there. Together with Krieger, with whom she has had a long-term friendship, the duo formulated a concept that would eventually evolve from a two-person affair into a program making use of the services of 200 art consultants. The program has achieved such eminence in recent years that in September, the Citicorp Center in Long Island City lent some of its space to an exhibition of work produced by LEAP students. Gross defines LEAP as "an art program related to an academic subject." Art disciplines are selected for their appropriateness to a given area of study. Many creative activities formerly dismissed as lacking in educational worth — such as cartooning, doll making or quilting — are turned into opportunities for the examination and study of political topics (as addressed by cartooning), cultural differences and similarities (doll making), and fractions and mixed numbers (patchwork quilting). Dance is used to teach addition, subtraction and simple principles of geometry, with drama used for the study of social and cultural history. The works of noted artists are also used to underscore specific themes; programs on Andy Warhol and Joseph Cornell turn the spotlight on the subject of autobiography, while Louis Comfort Tiffany's distinctive lamps serve as the basis for the creation of student "Tiffany" lamps — a lesson in electricity. As artists themselves and proponents of psychologist and educator Howard Gardner's "Multiple Intelligence Theory" (in which at least seven different intellectual capacities including linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical and bodily-kinesthetic have been identified), Gross and Krieger believe that a "natural affinity" exists between learning and the arts. "The arts engage children in many ways — one child may have an affinity for dance, another for drawing, another for drama," Gross says. "It's important that children are exposed to all the arts, because that's the way you find out where their interests — their strengths — are." Krieger points out that the process of producing art, with its innumerable decisions faced at every turn, where a slight variation of word, brushstroke, or gesture can thoroughly alter a meaning, teaches a significant overall lesson: problem solving. "Art teaches you not only how to create, but how to revise," she says. "The processes you go through in art, in which you use your problem-solving skills, are transferable to other areas." If problem-solving proficiency isn't a necessary element of art and education, and if Gross and Krieger aren't in the forefront of that department themselves, then the very notion of problem solving should be abandoned once and for all. Gross (who describes herself, enigmatically, as a "visual artist") holds a Bachelor's degree in European History from Sweet Briar College and a M.Ed. from Columbia Teachers College. Krieger, a photographer, has a Bachelor's in Art History and has studied at Columbia Teachers College and the Bank Street College of Education. Both have an extensive and impressive list of achievements working with the city's public schools and institutions. Gross has designed and directed a number of educational programs, including the District 12 after-school literacy curriculum, and has written elementary and middle school curricula for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. She also wrote the program "Global Understanding-Cultural Literacy", in which students in grades 3-6 receive insight into the mindsets, cultural attitudes and values of different peoples through the reading of stories from various countries. Krieger serves as director and coordinator of two Annenberg grants, which are being used to integrate arts-in-education programs into the curriculum of a pair of Queens schools (a process involving curriculum restructuring and teacher training) and performs a similar function to 20 school districts throughout Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. As its reach from borough to borough and school to school indicates, LEAP represents students at all grade levels and at all levels of ability, from pre-school to high school, from gifted students to special education students. The art that results is not about quality, but reflects a student's process of understanding. "Art is a wonderful vehicle for getting inside other people and understanding their perspectives," Gross says. "People learn by doing, and art is a way to capture that natural way to learn. It's what separates us from other animals."