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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Tucson Schools Enhance Learning with the Arts

Brain-based research supports an effort to improve student achievement through an interdisciplinary curriculum that combines creative pursuits and academic subjects.
By Fran Smith

VIDEO: Music and Dance Drive Academic Achievement

Running Time: 8 min.

At Corbett Elementary School, in Tucson, Arizona, classical music floats through the hallways all day. First graders and fifth graders create operas. Every fourth grader learns violin. Kindergartners meet weekly with a trio from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra to explore rhythm and patterns and to establish literacy connections.

Corbett is part of a sweeping initiative in the Tucson Unified School District to improve student achievement through an interdisciplinary curriculum that fuses the arts and academic subjects. The project, Opening Minds Through the Arts, is built on brain-based learning theories and research into children's neurological development.

"OMA is not only opening up children to the beauty of the world, it's also strengthening connections in the brain," says Sheila Govern, principal of Lyons Elementary School. "OMA is different than just having music. It uses the integration of the arts to reinforce concepts that students are learning. It gives them the experience of those concepts through music or movement or art."

When OMA began in three elementary schools in 2000-01, the Tucson Unified School District had little formalized elementary-level arts instruction beyond band and orchestra during the school day. "My goal was to get the arts in every elementary school," says Joan Ashcraft, co-creator of OMA and its director of fine and performing arts. The program's founders saw the arts as key to boosting student achievement and improving troubled schools. The program had an "angel" in H. Eugene Jones, who had earned a fortune turning around ailing companies and at age 84 began pouring his energies -- and ultimately more than $1 million -- into OMA. Two federal grants also helped fuel OMA's early growth, but the project caught fire because of its results.

In the first three years, the nonprofit research firm WestEd tracked the OMA schools along with demographically matched controls: All six schools had high percentages of low-income students, English-language learners, and children of transient families. OMA students significantly outscored their counterparts in reading, math, and writing, and although the benefits held across all ethnicities, Hispanic students, in particular, made substantial gains in writing.

WestEd also found that teachers in OMA schools did better than their peers on every indicator, including lesson planning and design, arts-integrated instruction, and the creative use of varied learning activities. Today, 40 of Tucson's more than 70 elementary schools have at least some elements of OMA. Pilot projects are under way at 4 of the district's 20 middle schools. (Download PDFs of rubrics and other supplementary materials.)

Corbett, a Title I school with about 600 students, was one of the original OMA sites, and the program initially met resistance there. Teachers worried about sacrificing precious minutes in an already jammed day to music or dance, recalls Principal Joyce Dillon. "Now they say, 'It's so completely related to what we're teaching. I never want to give it up.'"

At fully implemented OMA schools like Corbett, teaching artists -- professionals from Tucson's cultural institutions -- work with students on activities that dovetail with the classroom curriculum and state standards. An arts-integration specialist on the school staff also sees every class each week.

Of course, nobody -- least of all, kids -- participates in art to test better. The arts attract us by the pleasure and emotional stimulation they offer, and on that score, OMA shines. "We get a lot of visitors, and what impresses them is the engagement of the kids," Dillon says. "When kids are reading music or singing an opera, they're very focused, they're using the whole body, and their brains are making connections. There's a richness it brings to learning."

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.
Why Arts Education Must Be Saved Series

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