Smart from the Arts


   If you're worried about your teen doing well on the SATs, or your younger child grasping the concepts of math or learning to read, urge them to become immersed in an arts program at school. A new, critical study released on how the arts benefit students, and commissioned by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) and the Arts Education Partners (AEP), has confirmed what has long been suspected. "A study of the arts, in its many forms — as a stand alone or integrated into a school's curriculum — is increasingly accepted as essential in achieving success in school, work, and life." 

   The study documented more than 65 relationships between the arts and academic and social skills. Visual art instruction improves reading readiness, acting enhances conflict resolution skills, and dance can help non-verbal reasoning. As for those much discussed, often intimidating SAT tests, part of a high school senior's ticket into college, studies have shown that students more involved in arts programs perform better on standardized achievement tests. On SATs, they have higher verbal and math scores. It's actually a simple formula: the more arts classes, the higher the scores.

   A common approach to teaching a young child to read is to have a teacher read a story to the students. When children are allowed to act out their favorite stories, their understanding is enhanced and their involvement motivates them to learn more. The art reinforces the concept. Dance can help young children understand vocabulary, which enhances reading, by introducing abstract concepts such as up/down and in/out.

   Certain types of music instruction (remember band practice?) help to develop "spatial temporal reasoning", an understanding of the relationships of ideas and objects in space and time needed for mathematics. Students who continued to take music classes in middle and high school scored higher in 12th grade math and on standardized math tests.
   Retention is important in education, and when children are involved in an activity that is creative, they tend to retain the information. Don't you remember a school event from long ago by your memory of the art activity associated with it?

   When it comes to thinking skills, there is even more good news. Children shown a work of art and asked to talk about what they saw increased their reasoning ability. This, in turn, increased their ability to grasp science concepts. The arts offer several perspectives and thus teach our children that there are many ways to see the world around them.

Bringing it home
   How have all of these benefits been integrated into Westchester's educational system? Some of the answers lie in partnerships created between the art community and our schools.

   "The best way to use the arts effectively is to have it built into classroom activity, to engage kids in the core subjects through the arts," says Janet Langsam, executive director of the Westchester Arts Council. "The idea is that if a classroom teacher is more engaged in the arts, he or she will go to the art teacher to develop ideas to bring the unit alive."

   The Westchester Arts Council operates artist residency programs, with more than 100 Westchester artists in various disciplines. The program works with schools to bring artists into the classroom. In 2005, 59 artists conducted 132 residencies throughout the county. The Greenburgh Central 7 school district has been partnering with the council for over 10 years. Their goal is to integrate the arts into their curriculum to reach students with various learning styles. "Teachers, experts in curricula and child development, work side by side with artists, experts in their art forms, and the results are often powerful, with unexpected outcomes for all," explains Miriam Bernabei, director of arts for the Greenburgh school district.

   Last year, fourth graders in Croton-on-Hudson were taught the art of papermaking and, in turn, enhanced their study of colonial life in America. More recently, Washington Irving School in Tarrytown presented the work of artist Chris Burns in a project entitled Soles of the Movement, designed to illustrate the African-American struggle for civil rights. Students had a chance to see an artist at work and to experience history through a multi-dimensional work of art. The residency began in November with film footage and memorabilia (lots of shoes) depicting "the struggle and triumphs of the Civil Rights movement." Student artwork was created with the art teacher; the music teacher helped to illustrate the importance of music during this time; and the artist worked with the Social Studies and Language Arts teachers to bring the units alive. A community event at the conclusion of the program will showcase the students' work.

   Afterschool programs are another way to connect students to the arts. The Pelham Art Center has worked with Mt. Vernon schools for six years. The Port Chester Council for the Arts conducts two programs for K-5 schools in their district. Their "Connections" afterschool program provides two 45-minute art classes in addition to traditional homework support. The Council also has an extensive artist-in-residence program for all four Port Chester elementary schools. "Learning through creative play is an effective way to teach the arts and level the playing field for families with fewer resources," says Joanne Mongelli, deputy director of the Westchester Arts Council.

   In conjunction with the arts, you often hear words like "not for profit", "free", and "funded by". Herein lies the biggest challenge to the successful integration of the arts in education. Unfortunately, the arts still remain on the outside of education, often the last to be added and the first to be cut in times of shifting priorities and shrinking budgets. Mongelli explains, "Most programs are funded by grants. Once the grant goes away, the program goes away." With school budgets tightening and more emphasis being placed on testing, parent groups such as the PTA are funding many schools' arts programs.

   Arts integration, standards, funding. These topics all need to be explored further. But let us not lose sight, Lisa Robb of the Pelham Art Center reminds us, of "the good old-fashioned joy and 'aha!' moments and other audience/participant experiences of the 'this is fun, this is beautiful' type." Think of offering our children a world where a well-rounded education, inclusive of the arts, is the standard. Now that's a beautiful thing!

Pictured: A student participates in an artist-in-residence program in the Greenburgh School district.