Transforming a School Through Arts Integration in the Classroom
In my 35 years as an educator, I have always had a passion for the arts. As a student, I discovered that I accessed and retained concepts most easily when linking creativity to learning. As an adult, I have been involved in arts integration in the classroom first as a teacher, then as an elementary principal, and finally in a large project through which the arts helped transform a struggling middle school.
In my first years as a teacher, the arts provided a great springboard to learning for all students, regardless of academic level, language, or socioeconomic status. I also learned early on that the arts are truly the thread that weaves through the fabric of our lives and our society. The arts are a great equalizer, a force for good and a brilliant outlet for creative expression. The arts provide us with opportunities for making meaningful connections with ideas and most importantly with others.
During my 24 years in the classroom, I was honored to be recognized twice as Teacher of the Year. This gave me a platform for sharing my ideology regarding the importance of arts integration. I loved leading workshops and talking with fellow educators, and it was so fun to see these ideas take root in other classrooms. I also enjoyed mentoring student teachers and was so fortunate to have many of them hired within our district. I felt as if I was planting the seeds of arts integration throughout my school community!
After being named Teacher of the Year for a second time, I returned to school to pursue my Administrative Credential. Within a few years I was principal at a lovely Elementary School in Fullerton, California. We grew innovative programs and a group of enthusiastic teachers and parents created a school wide garden program, where students took their learning outdoors. Our school community was thriving! Imagine my surprise when my Superintendent asked me to move to a Junior High School where there were food fights every day at lunch, a place nick-named “Loserville” in the community. I was filled with apprehension, but of course I had to say yes, so I embraced the challenge and set out to make a difference.
Before I took the helm of Ladera Vista Junior High School, I asked to meet for 15 minutes with each teacher on campus. In those meetings I asked the same three questions: What do you like most about our school? What do you think we need to focus on during our first year together? Where do you see our school three to five years from now? The answers from my new teachers were remarkably similar, they liked the students and they liked each other. They were frustrated with the “FAME” Program, a fine arts magnet program that was housed on campus. Teachers who were not FAME teachers felt that all students deserved that rich arts-infused education. And finally, as they looked to the future, teachers said that they wanted to grow our arts programs and possibly even become known as a school of the arts. I considered these my marching orders!
I spent the summer reading about innovation in Jr High, I learned as much as I could about local arts programs and found that they were few and far between. In most cases the arts had been sacrificed as state and national attention turned to standardized testing in Mathematics and Language Arts. I began immediately sharing our school wide vision and advocating for the importance of the arts. Teachers on our campus received extensive training in arts integration in the classroom, and soon they were infusing visual, performing, and digital arts across all academic content areas. We grew our electives offerings to include beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes in the arts, eventually growing to 35 arts-based electives.
As we grew our arts-based programs over the years, we noticed some amazing outcomes. Our enrollment grew from 570 to over 1000 students in less that five years. Daily attendance jumped as we found that students truly wanted to be at school every day. Our lunchtime food fights and discipline problems became a thing of the past, with students engaged in more creative pursuits such as music, art, and dance. Our campus became a fun and lively place, and we purposefully set out to add lots of color inside classrooms to change the ambiance.
We rebranded ourselves with a new logo and we boldly renamed our school with the California Department of Education, we were Ladera Vista Junior High School of the Arts!
News spread, students were engaged, teachers were teaching with creativity and passion, and we became a destination location, with many students transferring from surrounding districts to be a part of the great things happening at our school.
As our School of the Arts grew, so did our recognition among local, state, and national educators. We were twice named an Exemplary School of the Arts by Art Schools Network, and in 2017 we were the only junior high or middle school to receive that distinction in the nation. We were also honored to receive the 2018 Schools to Watch Award by the California Department of Education and the United States Department of Education. Clearly the arts were making a difference for all members of our school community. Our program is easily replicated and our team began speaking at state and national conferences.
Now, you won’t find many educators who will tell you that they are fond of standardized testing, and our school was no exception. Our school community dreaded the two weeks of testing and the disruption to our creative programs. However, what we found in our testing results affirmed that arts integration was positively impacting our academic outcomes. In the 2017-18 School Year, State Testing results increased dramatically in both ELA and Math! We were not teaching to the test, we were teaching students how to think, how to problem solve, how to explore, learn, and achieve, and how to pursue their passions. Our testing outcomes prove that we are onto something big.
I made the decision to retire from public education in June of 2018. People were shocked at my decision and I was often asked what I would do next. I’ve always been a planner, but to be honest, I did not retire with a plan in place. I knew that my work as an educator was not done, and I knew that I wanted to promote my strong belief in the power of the arts to change the trajectory of students’ lives. I wanted to advocate for arts integration, and I really wanted to travel.
Fast forward and here I am, working with Teach Rock and touring with Steven Van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul on the Teacher Solidarity Tour. I have the joyful job of talking with teachers from across the country about arts integration and the outstanding Teach Rock Curriculum! Pinch me! I’m living my dream and loving every moment!
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