Editor’s note: In a series last fall called Voices from the Classroom: The Arts in Education Reform, NolaVie and cultural partner WWNO public radio teamed up to take a look at how the arts are being used creatively in schools around the city. With the start of a new school year, and education in New Orleans a more vital topic than ever, we are reposting stories from the series. In this installment,Brian Friedman talks to Jacques Rodrigue about a new model for arts-based schools.
It’s a simple equation for many schools today: pressure to improve standardized test scores equals more focus on the stem subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math. And that equals less time for the arts.
But research is showing there may be some flaws in that formula.
“So many people think the arts is just fluff, it doesn’t really help you out,” said Jacques Rodrigue, executive director of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. “When actually what the research shows is that when you integrate the arts into stem and make it steam, the students actually engage with the material more.”
Students with an arts integrated education have been shown to score higher on tests and to have fewer discipline problems.
“They’re engaged with the material,” said Rodrigue. “They’re not acting out because they’re having fun learning. Also, the attendance rates of the students go up because they want to come to school, and then an interesting thing was the attendance rate of teachers also went up.”
In addition, not every student learns the same way.
“Some students are book smart, but most students are visual smart or music smart or movement smart or nature smart,” Rodrigue said, “and when you use lessons that integrate the arts, you can hit as many of those learning styles as possible.
Keeping the arts in education has been part of Rodrigue’s life for a long time. He and his father, the late, great Louisiana Artist George Rodrigue, began their foundation six years ago.
The group puts on an annual art contest for high school juniors and seniors that doles out nearly $45,000 in college scholarship money to the winners, and “George’s Art Closet” gives art supplies to schools across the state.
“But our most ambitions program and the one that has the potential for the biggest impact is Louisiana A Plus Schools,” said Rodrigue, “where we actually train entire schools how to use arts in every classroom and every subject.”
When schools join the A Plus network, they commit to a three-year process of professional development, beginning with a summer institute.
“We invite the entire faculty from a school to come with us for five days to get intense professional development from experts in arts integration,” said Rodrigue, “to show them first why arts integration works and how it works and then to give them practical applications that they can use so that the students can learn traditional lessons by using some type of art form.”
So imagine using music, drama or dance to help teach math, English or history.
“An easy example may be learning cell structure by studying drawing – drawing a cell instead of just looking at it,” said Rodrigue, “And then taking it a step further by incorporating acting, where each students acts like each part of the cell, they have to use their body and their mood to express what that cell is.”
The “cell performance” can then expand into a lesson in what a director does, and what an actor does, etc. “So in true arts integration, you’re teaching an art form as much as you’re teaching the actual lesson.”
The A Plus Program began in North Carolina 20 years ago, and currently there are about 160 schools throughout the country using the program, including nine in Louisiana and two in New Orleans – Martin Behrman Charter School and Homer Plessy Community School.
But that’s far from good enough for Rodrigue, who said he hopes to add 50 more Louisiana schools to the program over the next five to 10 years.
“Louisiana is known for our arts and culture and by our uniqueness” he said, “yet still there are so many people who aren’t really embracing the importance of arts in schools.
“Many other states have gone full bore with arts integration” added Rodrigue, “and many of our schools here, they struggle to fund having an arts specialist, an arts teacher on campus, so it’s definitely a struggle and we think if we can show the results of how great the a plus program can work then we’ll be able to influence many of the decision makes to understand how important the arts really are.”
Any school interested in joining the A-plus network should visit www.georgerodriguefoundation.org to learn more.
Voices from the Classroom: The Arts in Education Reform is a continuing series about the arts and education in New Orleans by NolaVie and its cultural partner, WWNO public radio. The series is made possible by the generous support of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.