Setting standards, cutting funding for arts education


Minneapolis South High School junior Cory Grindberg is an avid bass player and fills his days with music, one example of a public school student who flourishes in the arts.

He arrives at South an hour before school for zero hour practice with the jazz band. He has chamber orchestra during school and this winter after school he played in the pit orchestra for Cabaret. He plays weekly with the Minnesota Youth Jazz Band and twice a month with the five-piece Dakota Combo, a Dakota Jazz Club/MacPhail Center for Music program. For fun, he plays with school friends in the Isaac Zuckerman Quartet at coffee shops and other gigs.

“I get up at 6 every weekday morning. I usually end up going to bed at 11,” he said, when asked about his music schedule. “It is a long day.”

Grindberg thought about applying the State Arts High School last year, but stayed at South because of his friends and the school’s strong music program. Parents Peggy and Bill also back his music aspirations, through help with private lessons, summer jazz camps and transportation to his various music venues.

Yet not all students have those resources. For many, arts seem to be a thinning palette.

Arts education in Minnesota schools

It is the best of times and worst of times art education in Minnesota schools. Since the Perpich Center for Arts Education High School opened in 1989, there has been a boom in arts specialty schools. Kids with talent and resources have more opportunities than ever before, such as the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts or the Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins, both free, public charter schools that have opened in the past four years. Yet as opportunities flourish in some corners, funding for basic arts programs in other traditional schools is hurting. The state has an arts graduation requirement, but with No Child Left Behind—and statewide testing—focusing resources on reading and math, the arts often become a pauper. The TC Daily Planet’s three-part series on arts education includes:

Perpich High School for the Arts—A mecca for creative teens
Arts in the city: St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists
Setting standards, cutting funding for arts education

A core subject

The federal No Child Left Behind law lists the arts as one of ten core subject areas. The Minnesota state standards require students to work in the arts “from the early grades through high school.” The state Department of Education is developing standards in six art disciplines: dance, literary arts, media arts, music, theater, and visual arts.

Minnesota has graduation requirements in five areas: four credits of language arts (that’s four academic years), three-and-a-half credits in social studies; three credits each in math and science and—starting this year—students need one art credit to graduate.

Unlike reading, math and science, there is no high-stakes state arts test. Each district sets its own measure of art success. If students pass the art class that could be enough to meet the graduation requirement. That means arts can get the brush-off in the budget process, as schools focus resources on reading and math where success is measured by highly publicized, quantitative test scores.

Art‘s status as “core subject” has been a matter of national debate. In 2004 U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige felt compelled to write superintendents to address complaints.

“As I travel the country, I often hear that arts education programs are endangered because of No Child Left Behind,” the letter said. “This message was echoed in a recent series of teacher roundtables sponsored by the Department of Education. It is both disturbing and just plain wrong.

“I don’t see where we are seeing how many children are being exposed to the arts or doing musical instruments … I don’t want to miss the qualitative measures that make a student a human being and not a testing machine.”

“It’s disturbing not just because arts programs are being diminished or eliminated, but because NCLB is being interpreted so narrowly as to be considered the reason for these actions. The truth is that NCLB included the arts as a core academic subject because of their importance to a child’s education.”

The value of the arts surfaced at a recent Minneapolis School Board meeting. The discussion centered on the district’s proposed new “scorecard,” which focused on reading, writing and math test scores, a college prep test and English Language Learning.

Director Pam Costain said the she appreciated the scorecard but it also upset her. “It reflects the same old, same old of reading and math,’ she said. “I don’t see where we are seeing how many children are being exposed to the arts or doing musical instruments … I don’t want to miss the qualitative measures that make a student a human being and not a testing machine.”

A statewide issue

Michael Hiatt, director of professional development and research at the Perpich Center for Arts Education, said while arts specialty schools are growing, in other traditional schools art teachers are getting stretched to cover more and more students. “It is more of a case of the haves and have nots,” in arts education, he said. “The gap is widening.”

The Perpich Center does not track arts education data and trends statewide, but some teacher associations do. Mary Schaefle, executive director of the Minnesota Music Educators Association, said she is concerned about equity in arts education. According to the association, from 2000-2006 the number of public school students dropped 1.5 percent and the number of public school music teachers dropped more than 11 percent.

“At the elementary level, that seems to be where it is hit the hardest,” Schaefle said. “And that is the foundation.”

Some schools contract with groups such as St. Paul-based SteppingStone Theatre to bolster the arts. SteppingStone works with 150 to 200 elementary, middle and high schools around the state annually, mostly public schools, offering everything from a one-day workshop to a year-long artist in residence. Artists work with students on acting, music, movement and other theater-related arts.

Arts funding is “hit and miss, depending on what district you happen to be in, what part of the state you happen to live in

Artistic Director Richard Hitchler said in the past, SteppingStone’s programs supplemented school art programs, but more and more they are the schools’ art programs. Art teaching is getting outsourced. “We are constantly recruiting and hiring new artists,” he said. “Obviously it saves some schools some money, rather than hire a full-time teacher.”

Anoka High art teacher Kevin Nitzberg said his school added an arts teacher this year, but as a member of the Art Education Consortium of Minnesota he also sees a bigger picture. Every 10 years or so, the arts go through a funding crunch. Electives, “irrespective of whether they have also been called core, tend to get the short end of the stick,” he said. Arts funding is “hit and miss, depending on what district you happen to be in, what part of the state you happen to live in, what the resources happen to be at any given moment.”

Junior Laura Marsolek of Ortonville is one example. She applied to attend the Perpich Center for Arts Education High School in visual arts because the thin offerings at her former school. “My art teacher was the art teacher for three other small schools in my area,” she said. “She didn’t have much time to spend with her students.”

Referenda on the arts

The Robbinsdale School District has prided itself on a focus on visual and performing arts. The district has an orchestra program starting in 4th grade and a band program starting in 5th grade; the American Music Conference rated Robbinsdale as one of the 100 Best Communities for Music Education in the country.

Robbinsdale school district voters rejected a 2007 school referendum. Superintendent Stan Mack II said nearly $500,000 of the $5.4 million in cuts for 2008-09 will come from art programs. While art is a core subject, it is not formally measured for “adequately yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. “We have to attend to the things we are being tested on and being measured on,” he said.

Robbinsdale will save $200,000 by eliminating the four-plus arts specialists that do hands-on projects in the district’s 11 elementary schools and support classroom teachers. The elementary band and orchestra programs are at risk of being cut in 2009-2010.

District alumnae are trying to raise $100,000 to $200,000 to offset cuts in high school speech and debate clubs, marching band transportation and theater productions. School Board Chair Patsy Green said her district was not alone in losing a referendum vote, and it would make another run at it either this fall or in 2009. “We hope it is a temporary set back.”

The Rosemount-Apply Valley-Eagan school district fared better. In 2005 it passed its referendum, allowing the district to maintain art and other programs, said Tony Tauchner, communications specialist. “We are in a better position than a lot of districts. Nobody is in a good position,” he said.

A core political question, Tauchner said, is why should Rosemount-Apple Valley be able to support the arts or any other program to a greater extent than other districts? “Is it about providing an equitable education or is it about providing what you can afford to provide in the area that you live in?” he asked.

In Minneapolis: Reforms and challenges

Talk to anyone in arts education and they talk about the importance of arts to creative thinking and future economic growth. Some schools make arts their centerpiece, such as the State Arts High School and the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts. Some arts specialty schools have small classes and relatively few poor students, students with special education and students learning English.

At schools such as Minneapolis South, teachers serve students from more diverse backgrounds. Ceramics teacher Denny Sponsler said his classes include recent Immigrants, disabled students and students from transient families who come and go. He also has a core group of extremely experienced art students. “And we have to provide a viable program to all of those groups.”

Brenda Cassellius, assistant superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, said the district’s new High School Redesign initiative aims to increase arts opportunities. Some programs are already strong, such as South High, she said. Washburn, Edison, Roosevelt and North high schools would get more attention.

Yet if South High is one of Minneapolis’s arts flagships, teachers there note worrisome trends.

Band teacher Scott Carter has taught at South for 16 years, and he said students have less time for music and the arts because of increasing academic requirements: “It is getting more and more difficult for them to take music for their entire high school career,” he said. “They are sandwiched with all this extra stuff they have to take, whether it is an additional social studies class, or geography or math or science.”

While he still gets exceptionally talented kids, Carter said overall student ability is trending down. He attributes that to cuts in elementary and middle school music programs, (a trend the district is working to reverse with the help of grant money and parent fundraising, reestablishing six elementary instrumental music programs in the past 3 years.)

Supply budgets fading

One floor up at South is Sponsler’s ceramics room. His kiln was down for six weeks, he said. The clay mixer, a money-saving clay recycler, has a bad gearbox. When equipment goes down, so does student motivation.

“All of the equipment is 30-40 years old. It constantly breaks down,” said Sponsler, adding he has better equipment than other district ceramics programs.

This year, Wald said he and his parents spent $350 each for wood and other supplies for students to build their own canvases.

Sponsler’s ceramics classes and Mark Wald’s visual arts classes get approximately $800-$850 a year each for supplies, they said. Both say they each have least 150 students per semester, for a supply budget of roughly $6 per student per semester. Wald said a tube of paint costs $6. Sponsler’s clay alone costs $1,200 a year, more than his entire materials budget. That doesn’t count the glazes, slips and tools.

This year, Wald said he and his parents spent $350 each for wood and other supplies for students to build their own canvases. The art department recently added a second annual fundraiser to boost income. “I will spend two weeks with my kids making cards that we can sell,” Wald said.

Josie Croud, a South junior, praised teachers but said supplies restrict students. “Sometimes I don’t have the paint to do it. I don’t have the canvas to do it. I don’t have the paper to do it. I know a lot of kids struggle with that,” she said.

Neither Sponsler nor Wald has a text budget. If they want books on basic drawing, composition, pottery or specialty books showcasing art from different cultures or new artists, they buy the books themselves. They can have class sizes in the high 30s, which leaves little time for personal attention.

Pat Teske, the Minneapolis schools fine arts coordinator, said the district has no central information on arts budgets or average art class sizes. Each school makes its own decisions. Some schools have smaller visual arts budgets than South. “It is a huge problem,” she said.

Teske is very hopeful about the district’s new direction. It is emphasizing uniform offerings among schools, teacher professional development and improving student assessments, such as posting student art on line and having teacher study groups critique it.

Yet these are soft measures. It is difficult to show progress in easily understandable terms, such as a test score.

Teske adds one other challenge. Minneapolis’s declining enrollment and school closings lead to staff turnover at individual schools. Turnover makes it difficult to grow programs. “There are so many fabulous teachers. In seven years they have been in seven buildings,” she said. “Until we can get stability, we can’t compare from year to year.”

New arts high school?

As an added wrinkle, the district may soon have its own fine arts high school. Minneapolis is renegotiating alternative school contracts. Plymouth Christian Youth Center has proposed transforming its current program to an arts-focused high school, said Assistant Superintendent Cassellius.

The school would include a program to attract high-achieving art students from Minneapolis and the suburbs, Cassellius said. The proposal will go to the School Board for approval sometime this spring.

South’s band teacher Carter had heard about plans for the fine arts high school and has mixed emotions.

A fine arts magnet might take his best players, compromising the program, he said. At the same time, such a program might lure top teaching talent, even Carter himself.

“I am very happy here,” he said. “I would be lying to you if I said I wouldn’t be interested in seeing what their vision was. To be in a school where everyone has the same focus is obviously very attractive.”

Requests for interviews with St. Paul Public School officials were not answered.