In 1997, a study of arts education in the Dallas Independent School District painted a disturbing picture: Although roughly one-quarter of schools enjoyed a rich arts curriculum -- from teaching artists and visiting troupes to master classes and field trips -- three-quarters of schools had nothing.
Today, almost every elementary school works with professionals from orchestras, dance companies, theaters, and museums to create programming that has become a model around the country. The striking turnaround resulted from a remarkable bottom-up effort that eventually brought together the school district, the city government, and more than sixty arts and cultural organizations in a group called Dallas ArtsPartners.
ArtsPartners was designed to link children with the city's vast cultural resources, create programs that support learning in core subjects, and make those programs available at every school, not just those with parents who can raise funds for "extras." ArtsPartners started in 1998 with thirteen schools, doubled the following year, and reached seventy-five schools by year three. Scale sustained the initiative through budget downturns and numerous changes in district administration. "It's a lot harder to cut a program in seventy-five schools than a program in three schools," says Gina Jacquart Thorsen, vice president of research and program development for Big Thought, the nonprofit organization that coordinates ArtsPartners and Thriving Minds, an expanded initiative to infuse creative learning into the curriculum, after-school and out-of-school programs, libraries, and neighborhood cultural centers.
From the beginning, ArtsPartners clearly articulated what it was -- and was not. It was a program that would bring a nature artist to do sketching with students as they studied the life cycle. It was not a program to teach children the elements of drawing. "We decided the role of the cultural community is not to give kids sequential instruction in the arts," Thorsen says. "That's the role of specialists. We didn't want to give the district an excuse not to hire specialists."
Two years ago, the district did bring more arts specialists back into schools, thanks to an initiative funded by the Wallace Foundation. Every elementary school student now has weekly music and art classes -- for the first time since 1979.
"There's been a lot of interest in how students can learn academics through the arts -- say, math facts through rhythm," says Craig Welle, executive director for enrichment curriculum and instruction for the district. "We realized we needed to focus on the learning standards for the fine arts themselves. In a way, we were putting the cart before the horse."
Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.