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N.C. elementary schools promise arts education but access is far from equal

November 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
North Carolina mandates that all elementary school students have equal access to art instruction, but enforcement of the law appears inconsistent across the state. Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports on two elementary schools' different approaches to arts education and the effects on student performance.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Schools nationwide are implementing new shared standards in math and reading, but what about for the arts? Are those required to be taught as well?

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has this report.

JOHN MERROW: Most public schools in the United States offer some sort of music instruction, but according to a federal government report, about four million elementary school students do not get instruction in the visual arts.

WOMAN: Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.

STUDENTS: Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.

JOHN MERROW: Ninety-six percent of public elementary schools do not offer theater or drama and 97 percent do not offer dance.

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These grim numbers contradict what most states say about the arts; 46 states require that the arts be taught in elementary school, including North Carolina, which mandates that every student receive equal access to art instruction. It’s a law that doesn’t seem to be enforced.

Jones County, in rural North Carolina serves 1,200 students, most from low-income families. While its four elementary schools do offer music instruction once a week, not one offers instruction in dance, theater or art.

JIMMI PARKER, Maysville Elementary School: Every year we kind of joke about it and we ask, oh, are we getting an art teacher this year? I mean, I was hired into this county probably 10 years ago. And I cannot remember having an elementary art teacher.

JOHN MERROW: With no art teacher on staff, principal Jimmi Parker of Maysville Elementary has had to rely on local talent.

JIMMI PARKER: We do our best. We have volunteers come in. All kinds of artists live in our area.

JOHN MERROW: These sixth graders remember when a professional artist came to their school for a month.

STUDENT: I liked the work we did with her, when we did the shadows with the trees.

STUDENT: Oh, this is really cool.

JOHN MERROW: Unfortunately, that was three years ago, when these students were in the third grade.

Would you like to have more art?

STUDENTS: Yes.

JOHN MERROW: Two hours west of Jones County, the picture is very different. Like Maysville, Bugg Elementary School in Raleigh serves mostly low-income families. But, unlike Maysville, Bugg has four full-time certified arts teachers in dance, music, the visual arts, and theater.

I asked these fifth graders how many minutes of the arts they have in a week.

STUDENT: During the week, the calculation would be about nine hours.

STUDENT: I would say about 15 hours.

STUDENT: I would say around 10 hours a week.

JOHN MERROW: OK. So we have got seven-and-a-half, 10, nine.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG, Bugg Elementary School: I love the idea that the kids couldn’t fully answer that.

WOMAN: So she called up the doctor and the doctor said…

JOHN MERROW: Michael Armstrong is principal at Bugg Elementary.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: They definitely have 45 minutes a day with a true, trained arts teacher. And then, because all of our staff are trained in the arts, that will bleed over into more time.

MARIA EBY, Bugg Elementary School: I’m going to turn into the beanstalk now and I want you to understand the beanstalk’s side of the story.

JOHN MERROW: First grade teacher Maria Eby is using the story of Jack and the Beanstalk to teach drama and science.

MARIA EBY: We are studying plants and what they need and what they give and how they relate to the world.

What are three things that plants do for us?

STUDENT: They give us food.

MARIA EBY: They give us food, like beans.

And then the drama part of it, they had to improvise as that character.

You are the old lady that gave them the beans. And why did you let him in the castle?

STUDENT: Because…

JOHN MERROW: What’s the goal? Do kids learn more?

MARIA EBY: Well, children all learn in different ways. And its our job to make sure we’re presenting things in different ways.

JOHN MERROW: But nobody said dress up like a beanstalk.

MARIA EBY: Nobody made me do that, no. That was my own free will.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Pull out your iPads with your portfolio on it, OK?

JOHN MERROW: This school feels rich.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Yes.

JOHN MERROW: Are you?

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Not at all. There’s two parts to that. The money is one part. Mind-set is another whole thing. So if you really believe that the arts are of power, that alone can have an impact. And if you don’t have that mind-set, then I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to pay for a strong enough arts program.

JOHN MERROW: But money makes a difference.

Bugg Elementary is what’s known as a magnet school. Magnet schools receive additional resources to attract a diverse student body. Bugg gets an extra $406 per child, nearly $250,000 a year. Principal Armstrong spends much of that money on the arts, and says he has watched his students thrive.

MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Students that have been in this program from kindergarten to fifth grade have a higher self-confidence, have a higher understanding of how they learn, and are actually making higher test scores.

JOHN MERROW: In contrast, instead of the arts, Jones County has focused its efforts on improving math and reading instruction. Over the past few years, both schools have improved, although Maysville Elementary has outperformed Bugg on most state tests.

This year, the mind-set in Jones County seems to be changing. The district hired an elementary art teacher.

CINDY O’DANIEL, Maysville Elementary: You see all the different kinds of coral.

JOHN MERROW: At Maysville Elementary, Cindy O’Daniel teaches seven art classes, back to back, with just one break and no time between classes to set up or clean up.

I was looking at your schedule. It’s a pretty hectic day.

CINDY O’DANIEL: We move quickly. But the 45 minutes is a better time slot to get something accomplished. And I have other schools that it’s 30 minutes, and so it’s hurry up and start, and hurry up and finish.

Hey, you guys, listen up. We’re running out of time.

JOHN MERROW: One of her classes is actually two kindergarten classes combined.

CINDY O’DANIEL: It is organized chaos, and it’s tough to get around to all the students in a regular class size in 45 minutes.

JOHN MERROW: And Maysville is not her only school.

How many schools do you teach in?

CINDY O’DANIEL: Four.

JOHN MERROW: How many kids do you work with?

CINDY O’DANIEL: I haven’t slowed down long enough to figure it out.

JOHN MERROW: Nationwide, nearly half of elementary school art teachers work in more than one school. I asked the students at Bugg how they would feel about having only 45 minutes of art a week.

STUDENT: I guess if I had never been in this school to start with, I would think it’s normal. But now that I’m here, I realize if I were to go to another school and it only has 45 minutes of art, I wouldn’t feel like it’s a real school.

CINDY O’DANIEL: I would love for it to be every other day. I would like them to have more time to think, more time to absorb, to assess information, instead of hurry up, hurry up, clean up, time is running out.

JOHN MERROW: Do the kids at your school get enough art?

JIMMI PARKER: No. They still don’t get enough art.

JOHN MERROW: How much is enough?

JIMMI PARKER: I guess enough would be when the kids are satisfied. When we ask them, do you get enough art, and they can say, yes, I feel like I have art in everything I do every day. It might not ever reach that point, but when they tell us they’re getting art, that will be enough.

JOHN MERROW: You’re a ways from there.

JIMMI PARKER: A long ways from there, a long ways.

JOHN MERROW: In 2014, a coalition of arts organizations will release new standards for the arts. But it will be up to each state to decide whether to adopt and enforce them.