A New Push for Arts Education in New Orleans' Embattled Schools

In the years following Hurricane Katrina, a rigorous back-to-basics education reform movement all but eliminated music instruction in New Orleans’ primary schools – an irony considering the city’s status as the cradle of jazz.

But this fall, music classes appear to be making a comeback.

It's not yet a surge; but if some educators, city officials, community activists and parents have their way, it soon will be. They’re calling on schools to provide more arts-integrated instruction as educators this fall begin to operate under the new Common Core standards.

Instruction in harmonic tones as well as team-work is now being offered at two New Orleans elementary schools. Homer A. Plessy Community School and Arise Academy began to offer music instruction this fall, just one year after the arts-infused Young Audiences charter school opened.

Enrollment is another indicator of growing interest. Encore Academy, an arts-integrated elementary school that opened in 2012, has seen enrollment quadruple from 100 to 400. Young Audiences opened in 2013 with 400 students and now has more than 500 students.

"The response from families has been tremendous," says Young Audiences Principal Folwell Dunbar. "People in this city are craving for what we're trying to do. We have a long waiting list for every grade.

"All children, especially at a young age, need a well rounded education. You don't teach arts in isolation and you don't study math in isolation of other subjects ... We're striving to connect arts across grade levels and (academic) subjects."

The connection between arts instruction and academic achievement, already well documented, just received another research-based endorsement. The Kennedy Center recently released results from a study that examined the impact of arts education on hundreds of fourth and fifth graders among 32 schools across five school districts in the Metro D.C. area.

The study found students in arts-integrated classrooms are more creative, engaged and effective at problem-solving than their counterparts who are not in arts-integrated classrooms. That is significant because the Common Core standards, which place greater emphasis on critical thinking, project-based learning and more student team-work also require more classroom problem-solving.

However, unlike other education jurisdictions – where school districts can require schools to make curriculum changes such as mandating arts programs – most schools in New Orleans’ are charter schools, independent operators that determine their own academic offerings.

The charter school wave began in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After Katrina, the Louisiana legislature restructured New Orleans public schools by placing “under-performing” schools – about two-thirds of the total in the city – under a new state Recovery School District (RSD) with the intent of having RSD schools return to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) after they improve academic performance. Those two school governing bodies cannot dictate what charter operators do in their schools.

The city’s elected leaders also have no control over charter school curricula but many are expressing support for more arts education.

"Music instruction is an integral aspect of a well-rounded education," says Jason Williams, an at-large member of the city council. "It would be amazing if the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District could find the wherewithal to provide music instruction in all schools. Our students deserve this and it only seems appropriate in the true music city, New Orleans."

Another council member, Susan Guidy of District B, is calling on schools to take action.

“At this point, there should be no question as to the value of arts education in improving academic performance,” says Guidry. “The central place that music occupies in New Orleans’ cultural landscape certainly suggests that it should occupy a central place in the arts education offerings of our schools and I encourage all of our schools to expand their arts offerings in ways that best serve their varied student populations.”

Leslie Ellison, who represents District 4 on the Orleans Parish School Board, is another strong advocate. "Music education provides balance and has the potential to expose students to a world of opportunity beyond the classroom setting," Ellison says. "I support appropriate music education initiatives that introduce students to respected composers and the required skills and techniques that will enhance their musical gifts and overall learning experience."

Ellison bemoans the difficulties parents face in finding out which New Orleans schools actually offer music instruction. The New Orleans public school enrollment website includes summary descriptions of academic programs that were written by each charter operator and it's not always clear whether music instruction is included.

A New America Media review of the website identified 13 RSD schools that offer arts instruction. Asked to confirm the number, Barry Landry, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Education, said the summary reports "are not an official counting of specific or all programs available" at each school. Parents, he advised, would have to find out from each charter school operator whether music classes are included in their curriculum.

While a majority of primary schools do not have daily arts instruction, many New Orleans high schools do. The major incentive is to sustain their marching bands.

Lawrence Rawlins is band director of The Roots of Music, a nonprofit after-school instruction program. He is among those advocating for arts education in elementary school, noting music and the arts are critical to enhancing academic ability.

Says Rawlins: "When you're young, your brain is like a sponge."

Two Roots of Music students – 13-year-old Diji Diallo and his 10-year-old brother, Owusu – say they have benefitted from music instruction. Owusu has been in the program for a year and a half and Diji has participated for four years.

“It (music instruction) has helped me improve in algebra,” says Diji. “Math had been my toughest subject.”

Before joining the Roots program, says Owusu, “I had trouble with math. When I was in second grade, I had problems with long division.”

Another high-profile music-instruction nonprofit, the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Jackie Harris, the founder and executive director, said arts education is not a frill.

“It’s fundamentally needed,” she said. “Schools should require arts education.”

Some high school band directors have called for more music instruction during interviews for an award-winning series co-produced by WWOZ, a non-profit radio station, and WWL TV. WWOZ also broadcasts student band performance live from its studios.

“So many people have been helped academically by studying music,” said Crystal Gross, WWOZ’s development director. “It’s sad that so many New Orleans students don’t get that opportunity.”

However, as the Young Audiences school heads into its second year – the first full year under the multi-state Common Core standards – Principal Folwell Dunbar said he is optimistic about the future of arts instruction in New Orleans, predicting that more schools will adopt arts education partly because the new standards require project-based learning.

“Common Core lends itself to more arts integration,” Dunbar says. “I have been a long-term believer in project-based learning and arts education is a natural fit.”

Click here to watch an interview with WWOZ Development Director Crystal Gross on the Cuttin' Class initiative.

This multimedia report is a collaborative project produced by George White of New America Media, David Baker of the Louisiana Weekly, Lawrence Martin of NOLA TV and Vincent Sylvain of the New Orleans Agenda.


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