Special to The Star
The Meridian Star
What does our Solar System and modern dance have to do with each other? How do you connect fractions in math with music? How can acting out a story influence literacy?
The answer is arts integration. In several local schools, teachers are being trained to weave the arts and standard curricula together to create a richer and more lasting learning experience for their students.
The MSU Riley Center efforts to encourage and guide local schools to become more arts-focused are really paying off. Since the center’s opening in 2006, the education department has worked closely with two schools in particular that were members of the Whole Schools Arts Initiative: Poplar Springs and Clarkdale Elementary. The Whole Schools Initiative, Mississippi’s first comprehensive statewide arts education program directed by the Mississippi Arts Commission, uses the arts as a vehicle for promoting high-quality instruction and learning for students in all disciplines. This unique program goes far beyond “art for art’s sake” and applies the learning power of the arts across the entire curriculum.
Last year, more schools were recruited into the Arts in the Classroom planning phase of Whole Schools, and today, Oakland Heights Elementary School and Northwest Middle School have been awarded Whole Schools Initiative status. In addition, West Lauderdale and Northeast Lauderdale elementary schools and St. Patrick Catholic School have become Arts in the Classroom grantees.
Is there any other county in Mississippi with seven schools involved in a school-wide focus on using the arts to teach our children? No, Lauderdale County is No. 1 in the state, with Tupelo a close second.
"We are so proud to see more schools reaching out for innovative ways to teach our children," said Dr. Charlotte Tabereaux, Education director for the MSU Riley Center. “Recent brain research has proven that kids learn more quickly when the arts are used, and they retain the information longer which leads to real academic benefits.”
Through the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program, the MSU Riley Center Education Department offers free training for teachers in arts integration. They also offer live theater performances with lesson plans and study guides to make each field trip a true educational experience.
“The arts are such an important part of each child’s education; it is great to see our teachers learning to use the arts to engage students in their own learning," said Randy Hodges, superintendent of Lauderdale County Schools, "Our partnership with the MSU Riley Center is truly a great resource for us as we strive to put the arts back into our classrooms.”
An arts-focused school has classrooms where students are enthusiastically participating in the learning process and having fun. It's not revelatory to say that the arts can engage kids, but that that engagement can also be leveraged to boost academic growth and improve discipline seems like a secret that really needs to be revealed. When you see how the kids embrace these lessons, hear them tell how art helps them remember concepts better, and learn about the improvements teachers have noted in student understanding and retention, it makes you wonder why more schools aren't integrating the arts in every class.
Meridian Public School District Superintendent Dr. Alvin Taylor agrees.
“We are proud to be part of the Whole Schools Initiative and extremely proud that Meridian and Lauderdale County are leading the way in this area for our state," Taylor said. "Meridian Public School District will continue to work closely with the MSU Riley Center to make this a model program not just in Mississippi but in the Southeast."
Samples of the arts effect on student achievement:
• Poplar Springs and Clarkdale Elementary Schools (arts focus for 6 years) became “A” rated schools… STAR Schools.
• Oakland Heights Elementary School – which began their arts focus last year – went from an F to a "C."
• Northwest Middle which also began their arts focus last year went from an F to a "D."
• Parkview Elementary School – which participated in an arts focus last year – went from an D to a "C."
"We are proud of this new evidence of success in our Education programs,” says Dennis Sankovich, executive director of the MSU Riley Center.
“Over the past six years, the MSU Riley Center has been dedicated to making a difference in improving the quality of life in our region through the arts. Becoming a Kennedy Center Partner in Education with our county & city schools and focusing on arts integration was important toward addressing this goal. We are now seeing the fruits and initial successes of the Center's focus, dedication and programming in education. We also must recognize the help and support that was provided by the Riley Foundation, Peavey Electronics, Structural Steel, and many other donors who believe in and support the work that we do."
Arts integration goes beyond including art projects in class; it is a teaching strategy that seamlessly merges arts standards with core curricula to build connections and provide engaging context, Tabereaux said.
"For example, in a science classroom you might see students choreographing a dance using locomotor and non-locomotor movements to demonstrate their understanding of rotation versus revolution of the planets," she said. "In a math class, you might see students learning fractions by examining quarter and half notes in a musical composition. When a group of children work cooperatively to dramatize a piece of literature, they are improving their reading comprehension skills. Yes, the arts are fun, and all learning should be!"