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Art Smart

The state of the arts in Colorado Springs schools



"So you're getting an art degree ... And your day job will be?"

This is just one of the timeless jokes about the merits of aspiring to be an artist.

Yet, in recent years, study after study has underscored the importance of arts instruction through all grade levels. Beginning with a 1988 National Endowment for the Arts report detailing the poor quality of school arts programs, research has shown arts programs help improve students' overall school performance.

More recently, James Catterall, an education professor at the University of California Los Angeles, weighed in on the importance of arts and education in his 1997 book, Involvement in the Arts and Success in Secondary School, which tracked more than 25,000 students as they went from 8th to 10th grades.

"Students who studied the arts had higher grades, scored better on standardized tests, had better attendance records and were more active in community affairs than other students."

Still, school art programs have struggled for years to gain credibility as essential parts of students' education. And, these are the programs that often wind up on the chopping block when budgets get tight.

For students, parents and teachers alike, attitudes are slowly changing. And, what has remained constant throughout has been the dedication of the art educators themselves.

By practicing the creativity they teach, many local teachers and schools have made great strides in expanding and redefining their art curriculums in a time when technology, funding, cultural diversity, class sizes, and issues of school and national safety are changing faster than ever.

If they build it

One of the big challenges facing many school art programs is the issue of space. Whether you're talking about large canvases or throwing wheels for pots, student artists need room to create.

As District 11 school board member Lyman Kaiser noted, downsizing classrooms and a huge surge in the local population has created a deficit in classroom space. For arts programs, this space limitation can result in teaching in portable buildings, or just cramming more kids into small studios or darkrooms.

For example, six years ago in District 12, Cheyenne Mountain High School's art program had growing student participation, but was feeling pinched for space.

Teachers were forced to use one room that was converted into two art rooms in a portable building with no running water. Both the drama and the music department were housed in the overflow rooms in the auditorium, which were designed with auditorium seating.

"We got by, but it was challenging," said Chip Shaw, head of the art department at Cheyenne Mountain High.

With the backing of parents and arts advocates in the District 12 community, the art department took their pleas to the school board with a proposal for a new teacher-designed, 27,000-square-foot building that included a black box theater, two new art rooms, a large chorus and music room, a gallery, a computer design and digital photography lab, and a video production studio.

The board gave its overwhelming support, and District 12 voters passed a $10.5 million bond issue to build the new arts facility and a new swimming pool at the high school.

Now in its second year, the new facility has proven a huge success. According to Shaw, 90 percent of the student body takes one or more art classes every year.

"The difference here [at Cheyenne] is that the community really supports the arts. I think they see a connection between the arts and academic achievement," Shaw said. "You give the kids an opportunity to take a painting class, or drama or music, and they do better. The art is their release. It helps them get through the day."

Meanwhile, in Colorado Springs' largest school district, District 11, Wasson High School has also been fortunate to enjoy the spaciousness of new arts facilities.

Slated to become an arts magnet school in the mid-1990's, Wasson, in central Colorado Springs, got funding from D-11 to build a new arts wing that includes, most notably, a new dance studio.

Now in its third year, Wasson has the only high-school dance program in Colorado Springs, taught by Marisa Farro-miro, who teaches everything from ballet to hip-hop, and has gotten approval to give physical education credit for the dance classes.

Wasson also has a state-of-the-art recording studio, an unfinished black box theater, and a new visual arts room.

While Cheyenne Mountain and Wasson are the envy of many other local arts teachers who are still struggling to get funding for new arts space, Manitou Springs High School will be able to enjoy an unsolicited new arts facility this coming fall.

For Michael Cellan, an art teacher in Manitou for 37 years, teaching in the town just west of Colorado Springs is a dream.

"I get a new art space about every 10 years, and I don't even have to ask for it," he said. The voters here actually support art in the schools!"

The new facility will have three large art rooms with one set aside for the middle school.

Beating the budget

For elementary schools that have low student enrollment and little parent and community involvement, just maintaining a budget for the core curriculum can be a challenge, especially with state emphasis now being placed on the education basics that CSAP tests mandate (see "Show Me the Money," page 21).

Arts programs are inevitably the first things to get cut in District 11 elementary schools, where having an arts teacher on staff is not mandated (D-11 only mandates art be taught at the middle- and high-school levels).

The schools hardest hit in D-11 are often those with the lowest achievement because school choice now allows parents to send their children to any school within the district if the school can accommodate them. Because funding is allocated on a per student basis, low enrollment means less funding.

Queen Palmer, in central Colorado Springs, is one of a handful of District 11 elementary schools with a significant high-risk student population and no full-time art teacher.

When Priscilla Barsotti became principal of Queen Palmer five years ago, she noticed how little exposure to the arts most of her students had had.

"So many kids have never been to Denver or a local symphony or the museum," she said.

With a background in gifted education and art education, Barsotti was one of the founders of the Summit Performing Arts Academy, a summer program in Manitou Springs that integrated dance, drama, music and the visual arts. She also had previously worked with gifted and talented students in Manitou and D-11.

When she came to Queen Palmer, Barsotti said, she became clearly aware that "we often offer the most opportunities to the children who have supportive parents, who can afford the arts, and can get them to various programs."

Barsotti quickly saw the natural opportunity to give students -- many of whom were at higher risk of falling through the cracks -- more nurturing in the arts. She immediately began to integrate the experience and contacts she had formed in her previous work with arts education into the curriculum at Queen Palmer.

"I started bringing in some of the artists I had worked with in my previous job," she said. "Kids stayed after school and participated and performed and behaved. And what I saw were children who were struggling in reading, writing and arithmetic excelling in dance, drama, music and the visual arts."

Without enough funding for a full-time art teacher, Barsotti began using a combination of grant money and volunteers to develop this loose programming into what she calls "Arts Focus Days"-- four full days of arts education that take place over the course of the school year.

During these focus days, students rotate through classes in everything from drama to African drumming, to drawing, painting and storytelling.

One of the biggest results, Barsotti found, was that parents began to come to the school to see their children perform.

"I can't get parents involved in any other way," Barsotti said. "But by coming to these events, the parents have built a trust, and they're more likely to get involved now."

Though there isn't a lot of research to support her, Barsotti believes that high-risk students are more likely to learn through non-verbal types of activities -- and arts in particular. On top of that, she noted that the arts program helped many of her students improve self-esteem and increase their focus in other areas.

Similarly faced with budget constraints that limited the opportunities for students, Wasson visual arts teacher Carol Shaw expanded the scope of her art budget by collaborating on projects with Nancy Vogel, who heads the high school's theater department, and with the elementary and junior high schools that feed into Wasson.

Shaw's art classes have collaborated with students from Audubon and Longfellow elementary schools to paint murals on their handball courts, and are currently working with students at East Junior High on murals inside the school.

"If you can team up with other schools that have grant money or money for school improvements, they will often supply the paints to be able to do big murals," Shaw noted.

The Digital Age

Another important trend in arts education is the move toward digital technology. Though budgets often limit the amount of computer and digital equipment schools can afford for the arts, those who can provide the equipment see it as an invaluable learning tool for preparing students for college and careers in highly technological times.

Manitou Springs High School, for example, recently shut down its traditional black-and-white photography dark room and now only offers digital photography.

"You can do almost everything with a digital camera that you could do in a darkroom, you get to work in color, and you can get further in the curriculum" said Debra Brewster, art teacher at Manitou High School. "Going digital is the way most things are going now, so we can prepare kids for a career right out of high school."

D-12's Cheyenne Mountain High School and District 20's Air Academy High School were among the first in the area to install video production studios as part of their art programs. At Cheyenne Mountain, students do everything from scripting, shooting, editing, sound editing, and blue screening to produce their daily announcements.

"These kids know so much more than I do," said Jack Busher, a former English teacher at Cheyenne Mountain who taught himself how to operate video equipment when kids started demanding it. "I just try to keep them all organized and tell them what needs to get done. But this is their program."

Palmer High School, a District 11 school in downtown Colorado Springs, is also initiating a digital media communications program that will include graphic arts, commercial art, digital art, digital photography, multimedia and e-commerce.

Professional pragmatism

Another trend that is helping school art programs dispel "fluff" and "filler" criticisms has been an increasing amount of education that teaches students many of the professional aspects of being an artist.

At Air Academy High School, for example, teacher Jon O'Lonergan recently launched a program to teach his students how to propose, construct and install a public sculpture through the Museum of Outdoor Arts' (MOA) Design and Build competition.

Designed to bring advanced art students through the entire process of putting up a public sculpture, the program requires students to submit a complete and detailed design proposal and maquette (model) specific to one of nine different pre-selected sites (mostly in the Denver area).

Then, if the proposed design is chosen, MOA awards the school $700 for materials and construction. After the design is built, students then install the work at the site, send out press releases, unveil the work and document it. The art then remains on display for six weeks.

It's the same procedure, O'Lonergan notes, that any professional artist goes through when submitting a proposal for a public art installation.

Many area schools have also adopted the well-established advanced placement art program that requires students to build the equivalent of a professional portfolio, including slides, for college credit.

Though some teachers complain that few colleges actually accept AP credits for art classes, the process of building the portfolio gives students first-hand experience in what it takes to submit artworks either for college acceptance or for consideration by professional galleries.

Many teachers also like the AP art program because it emphasizes both concentration in a single medium and a breadth of artistic knowledge in other mediums.

"Some students like this because they want to move toward a career in art, and others just have a real passion for art," said Karen Winfield, an art teacher at Liberty High School who just incorporated the AP program this year.

"We're real portfolio-oriented," said Chip Shaw at Cheyenne Mountain High School. "I'm not that interested if a kid produces one masterpiece in the course of a year.

"What we want to see is students who can generate 20 to 30 really strong pieces over the course of a couple years and really get some versatility in their ability to be productive as an artist."

From the roots up

Though it would be hard to say that District 2's Harrison High School is doing anything particularly "new," they're getting results. Whether you're talking about their award-winning choir program directed by Gary Houston or the visual art program run by Tom McCombe, students at Harrison, in southern Colorado Springs, are learning their craft from the roots up.

Just a few months after he took over the choir program in 1999, Houston turned the Harrison Choir from a "fairly dysfunctional and disorganized potpourri" into a tightly organized, nationally recognized group.

One of Houston's secrets, he says, is that he spends a lot of time with the choir just practicing "breath support."

"We spend 15 to 20 minutes a day doing breath exercises, and I think that's the thing that separates us from other choirs," he said. "We spend so much time on building the voice. Then I try to take them through the repertoire and teach them how to build their voice,"

Last year, Houston took the whole choir to Winter Park to compete against 24 different choirs from around the country and won in their division.

Houston also has the group performing pieces like Handel's Messiah with a full orchestra, which, to say the least, "has not been done by a high school choir in town in a long time."

The program, Houston noted, started out with 32 people. Now, about 190 students participate, drawing students from other schools who want in.

"People expect us to be good, and the kids like that very much," Houston said. "The program has just exploded."

Houston attributes the turn-around, in small part, to his own energy and, in large part, to the resultant passion from the students themselves.

"There's so much raw talent here, and these kids don't where the bar is. Once they get excited, they far surpass the expectations where other kids might stop. And the kids love the discipline."

Seven of the graduates from Houston's program went on to study music in college last year.

Across the building, in Tom McCombe's art studio, the same kind of rigor and play is at work in the students' artwork. Like Houston, Harrison's McCombe believes in a basic, classical approach to art training, including learning from the masters.

"I'm a huge proponent of art history," he said. "I think that students should learn from the masters. I expose them chronologically to the entire history of art."

The technical mastery that many of McCombe's students achieve is evident from the drawings and paintings around the classroom.

McCombe also sets himself apart as a teacher by making his classroom open to students from the time the doors open until the school shuts down at night.

"There are a lot of kids in this district who were told that they weren't worth anything, that they weren't good at anything," McCombe said. "And they come in here and they really take off."

Art with the curriculum

While some educators may see arts as being at odds with the traditional curriculum, teachers like Pam Holnback at D-11's Holmes Middle School are teaming up with teachers school-wide and incorporating art into the curriculum.

Using an approach similar to the once-popular "team teaching," Holnback, a teacher for 21 years, tries to tie her art classes in with what her students are learning in other classes.

Holnback's students don't just make art; they study art movements, the cultural contexts in which art is made, and individual artists.

For example, much of what Holnback teaches to her 7th graders relates to the eastern hemisphere because that's when students are studying other aspects of the eastern hemisphere. If a teacher has the kids studying Japan, then she teaches them about the art of Japan.

One of the great benefits of this kind of teaching, says Holnback, is the scope and context it offers. Instead of the day being broken up into compartmentalized areas of learning, the students can easily relate what they've learned in social studies to art and vice versa.

"I had local paper maker, Tom Leech, come in one year," Holnback said. "He had been to Tibet, and he showed all of his slides on Tibet to the kids. Ancient Tibetans were famous paper makers, and Tom had studied it, so we did a whole paper-making unit.

"Then, in science class, the kids studied topographical maps of Tibet and compared them to the mountains here in Colorado. In history, they studied the culture and government of Tibet. And in English [class], they read Into Thin Air. It was a great unit!"

Holnback says that kids learn more this way, bringing art into the context of culture, and finds that it also helps foster better communication between teachers.

And no matter what kind of learner an individual student may be, Holnback, like other educators, believes this type of teaching offers something for everyone.

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