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Friday, August 7, 2009

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NationalAssembly of State Arts Agencies

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Executive Director's Column

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

Evidence continues to mount that the availability of learning in and through the arts is a factor critical to the success of American schoolchildren. In her recent front-page article in The New York Times, "Where Education and Assimilation Collide," Ginger Thompson focused on how Hylton High, a public school in Virginia, responded to an influx of working-class immigrants that swelled the number of their English learners. Reports informed the school's educators that their new arrivals included students from 32 countries speaking 25 languages, and that at least 759 immigrant students had already dropped out of the county's schools. They set up classes for students learning English that paralleled other courses with two basic differences: "teachers move more slowly and rely more on visual aids." What does that mean in practice? "At Hylton, freshmen finish Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' in a month, while immigrants pore over it for an entire semester. Most mainstream students take tests with essay questions on the phases of the water cycle; the English learners have the option to draw posters, like one by a Bolivian-born boy who depicted himself as a water molecule rising from an ice cube, drifting into a cloud and raining over his homeland."

Some of the results? "Students in Ms. Cain's program generally outperform other English learners in the state on standardized tests, and do as well or better than Hylton's mainstream students. Last year, for example, all of the English learners passed Virginia's writing exam; by comparison, 97 percent of the general population passed. In math, 91 percent of Hylton's ESOL [English for speakers of other languages] students passed the exam, the same percentage as other students." We may note the investment in human resources required to institute such a program and we can debate the impact of various other factors on the performance of these immigrant students, but can there be any doubt that students whose instruction purposefully integrates multiple symbol-systems—words and visual images, for instance—are more likely to find ways to learn subject matter, develop confidence as learners, and remain committed to schooling than students whose instruction is not similarly enriched?

Thompson notes the controversial aspects of effectively creating a newcomer school within a school, "where students learning English are placed for all but a few electives like art, R.O.T.C. or auto mechanics." The ultimate goal, everyone would agree, is to mainstream these students. But I'm fascinated by the rationale behind not separating students for this set of electives. It might simply be that the costs are not deemed worth it for electives. But it might also be that the visual and kinesthetic aspects of these classes make the verbal language barriers less prohibitive to the learning process. I have to observe, too, that if the art class is one of only a few places where immigrant students socialize with others and engage in mainstream English language and learning, that class becomes exceptionally valuable in the schooling process of all students. There are, of course, many reasons why classes in the arts should be part of every student's curriculum, not only those students who are fortunate enough to have relatives, peers or educators who guide them to elect arts classes. I have been in vibrant classrooms in Israel where the subject of study, music, was the common language between Russian immigrant teachers and Arab students.

This week, the leadership development seminar for Coming Up Taller program semifinalists takes place in Arlington, Virginia. This awards program, cosponsored by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, with NASAA as the operating partner, recognizes the success of after-school learning in the arts and humanities. It has grown in scope to include activities designed to network groups and to enhance their abilities to take advantage of the visibility provided by national recognition. Dr. Margaret Martin, cofounder of the Harmony Project in Los Angeles, one of this year's semifinalists, cites research that the public cost of a high school drop-out in her county approximates $200,000. We are reminded that programs like the Harmony Project and Venezuela's El Sistema can provide very compelling documentation of their cost-effectiveness as a public investment, in addition to their curricular benefits and impact on the civic engagement of their participants.

Please note that registration is now open for NASAA's next Web seminar, Arts Participation in America. Included during the session will be highlights from the NEA's latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, and a discussion of strategies to strengthen participation. To register, contact NASAA Learning Services Manager Eric Giles.