By Chris Kieffer
Hanging on a wall near Jeni Chandler’s second-grade classroom at Thomas Street Elementary School are the creations from a recent project in which students mixed Picasso and mathematical place values.
Based on a unique three-digit number, they created an abstract picture with triangles, circles and squares. Each of their digits – ones, tens and hundreds – determined how many of each shape they used. They then wrote about the connection between art and math.
“It gives children another outlet and way to express themselves,” Chandler said.
A new report from Mississippi State University determined such lessons – reinforcing academic concepts with the arts – can help students learn more and score better on standardized tests. It also found that arts integration can reduce or eliminate educational achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students.
“It is so interesting because systemically in this state, we have always struggled with this issue,” said Judith Phillips, research analyst at MSU’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development, which generated the report. “…Here we have a program that has been in operation in our schools for many years but on a limited basis with limited resources that works and has been proven to work in Mississippi schools.”
The Stennis Institute study analyzed the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Whole Schools Initiative, which helps teachers use drama, music, visual art and dance to teach English, math, science and social studies.
Researchers compared results on student state tests. It found the percentage of students scoring proficient or better on those tests was significantly higher at schools participating in the MAC program than other students statewide or even within the same district.
Among the 12 schools they studied were Saltillo Elementary and Tupelo’s Pierce Street Elementary, which both participated in the MAC’s program.
“The results were so definitive that I walked away saying we have to find a way to bring more resources to the Mississippi Arts Commission to help them to expand this program,” Phillips said.
The MAC program has three levels: Arts in the Classroom schools are just entering it and learning it, Whole Schools are fully implementing it over a six-year period and Model Schools have mastered the concepts and serve as examples for others. In all, 31 schools are participating statewide.
Teachers at those schools are trained on ways to use the arts to reinforce their lessons. They may have students create a play based on a story they’ve read or write a song to explain a new concept. They also have access to visiting artists.
“Arts integration is allowing the students to take ownership for their own education,” said Jodie Engle, Whole Schools Initiative director for the MAC. “…Because they have made the personal connection to the material, that information will stay with them even longer. It is all about connections.”
The Tupelo Public School District has greatly expanded its participation in the program this year, with all of its K-8 schools participating. Engle said it is the only place in which the superintendent has embraced the program as an entire district.
“We are excited to use them as a model for the state and the nation,” she said.
Thomas Street Elementary is a Model School, and Lawndale, Pierce Street and Tupelo Middle are in the Whole Schools program. The district’s six other K-6 schools are in the entry-level Arts in the Classroom program.
“Students get to create something or produce a finished product,” said Tracey Taylor, grants/arts integration coordinator for the Tupelo Public School District. “That makes it lasting with the children.”
Thomas Street gifted teacher Tara Harris said the program helps students with social and emotional struggles better express themselves. It also provides an exposure to the arts that some may not otherwise get.
“I think for all students the arts really get them excited and motivated to learn,” she said.