A Bronx Tale
January 15, 2009

When public schools feel the crunch of dwindling budgets and the rigorous demands of No Child Left Behind, arts education is often the first to go. Mandated to raise test scores in reading and math, school principals know that if the government standards aren’t met, they could be forced to cut staff or even lose their own jobs. In light of this, the idea of using school hours to teach ballet or hip hop can seem dangerously frivolous.

But for two principals working in the Bronx, New York, the question of whether to continue providing arts  education is non-negotiable.

Middle School 223, once shuttered as one of the most violent middle schools in New York City, was reopened in 2003 as M.S. 223/The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology. Today, Principal Ramon Gonzalez says attendance is about 4 percent higher than at any middle school in the area. Meanwhile, test scores have risen from an 8 or 9 percent competency in reading and math to a whopping 65 percent of students on grade level for math and 40 percent for English language arts. And Gonzalez credits a large part of this success to the school’s robust arts program.

“Dance is a way to get kids involved in the school,” he explains. “It immediately affects attendance, and that immediately affects test scores.” When the educators at M.S. 223 realized that arts classes were such a draw, they began scheduling them on days when attendance was typically low. This led to a wholesale change in philosophy. “Before, we saw [arts and academics] as mutually exclusive, and now we see things differently,” says Gonzalez.

Public School 24 Principal Philip Scharper likewise sees arts education as “culturally and educationally enriching.” Having danced professionally for 13 years with Oakland Ballet, Arizona Ballet, Westchester Ballet Company and the Princeton Ballet, he knows firsthand what the rigors of dance training can offer beyond the stage. “Dance is a tremendous discipline,” he says. “It offers children the opportunity for physical stamina as well as mental discipline, coordination, body-mind-spirit health and connections that increase their aptitude in academic areas as well.”

Making arts education a top priority has required both principals to find  creative ways to increase funding for their programs and fit the classes into the school curriculum. Here, we discover how they’re making it work.

Making the Time
M.S. 223 slots 10-week blocks of arts education—including visual arts, drama, dance and instrumental and digital music—into the students’ weekly schedules. A double period of math, for example, becomes a single period of math plus a dance period for one 10-week block. Then it’s on to the next artistic discipline.

Each grade level has a dance component tied into its regular curriculum. For second graders this year, it’s all about tap. “The teacher is interested in bringing them the history of tap and the Harlem Renaissance,” explains Scharper. “So, on a regular basis we’ll have a period of enrichment that is tap, plus some social studies and literacy connections.”

Meanwhile, at P.S. 24, recess and lunch periods are used to practice music, while phys ed classes are devoted to rehearsing dance numbers in the weeks prior to the school’s spring performance, “Dancefest.” On occasion, students have gone on field trips to see American Ballet Theatre and work with Dance Theatre of Harlem, or to watch shows by visiting dance troupes like South American folklore group Yarina.

Raising the Bar
Students at Gonzalez’s school study dance within a very broad educational context. The dance instructor collaborates with the classroom teachers to coordinate lessons. “If students are studying jazz, then they’re relating it to social studies as well, so they’re learning about the Civil War and how blues and jazz had an effect on American culture,” Gonzalez explains. “And then we also connect dance to other arts and disciplines, like a digital music piece utilizing technology in connection with dance. It’s really intense.”

The staff is held to strict accountability standards. It’s no longer just about putting on a nice show, says Gonzalez: “Now we go in and measure.” Twice a year, he leads a retreat during which teaching artists and classroom teachers work together to form a creative plan that includes teaching goals. “It’s important to have time for the artist and teachers to sit together and go over the curriculum and really understand what they’re teaching,” says Gonzalez. “Then we do what we call ‘learning walk-throughs,’ where we have a sheet of paper with the characteristics that we’re expecting to see.” For some dance instructors it’s a little intimidating, “but it has improved their instruction because now they have an idea of the things we’re looking for and expect,” he adds. “So everybody is now accountable.”

Finding the Funds

Gonzalez initially was working with a $20,000 annual arts budget, which is what NYC schools once received through the Department of Education’s now-defunct Project Arts. (It has since become ArtsCount, and school arts budgets vary depending on the number of students.) “We realized that to make our vision come alive, we  needed more money,” he says.

So Gonzalez’s school took part in a pilot program called the School Arts Support Initiative, sponsored by the Center for Arts Education and funded by the New York Times Company Foundation and the NYC Department of Education. M.S. 223 received $25,000 to plan an arts program, and it “drastically changed the school,” says Gonzalez. In fact, its success has fostered a national program. M.S. 223 now acts as a model and holds workshops for other schools, in addition to receiving the grant. With that money, plus other grants and funding from the school, M.S. 223’s annual arts budget is now roughly $100,000, according to Gonzalez.

In the past, P.S. 24 relied on Parents As Art Partners grants from the CAE to supplement its arts budget. (The school was ineligible to receive it this year because the program is looking to help a new crop of schools.) These days, however, much of the school’s arts funding comes from its parents’ association. “The parents are very supportive,” says Scharper. “They come forward to help us supplement our arts budget.”

Without that support, he admits, it becomes much more difficult to maintain arts programs. “If you have academic challenges at a needy school, then principals may make choices that shift money from the arts,” he adds. “We have not done that. We don’t believe that that’s going to serve us.”

Looking to the Future
Together with higher attendance rates and better test scores, Gonzalez is proud that students at his middle school have a solid grounding in the arts. “If they want to go to an art school or become a dance major, they can do that,” he says. “That was never an option before.” He estimates that fewer than 10 percent might make that choice, but those who do are going on to study at arts schools like LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Talent Unlimited High School and the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music. “Up until last year we never had any kids apply, let alone get into those schools.”

It’s all about giving students a choice, Gonzalez says: “Now they can say, ‘I’ve taken these different classes, and you know what, I do like dance.’ We joke about it because we are a finance and technology school. So I say, ‘Look, you don’t have to be a dance instructor, you could own the dance company—that’s fine with us.’”

Jacqui Gal is a freelance writer in New York City.

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