The arts are part of almost everything that happens at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Look up at the covering of the walkway as you enter, and you'll see the mural -- brilliant blue sky, sun, cloud puffs with smiling kids' faces. It was conceived, planned, and painted by third graders. In first-grade math lessons, children rap drums, shake tambourines, and count beats. This year, when Vanessa Wallace's fourth graders studied the Trail of Tears, they wriggled into costumes and acted out the expulsion of Native Americans from land in the Southeastern United States.
Wallace has taught at Wilson for thirteen years, through three principals, and has always done art projects with her kids. But it's only now that she feels she has the training, supplies, support, and intellectual framework to make the arts a central, meaningful part of her curriculum. What changed? Wilson became an Oklahoma A+ School, joining a network dedicated to nurturing creativity among students and innovation among teachers.
"Before, I felt the administration thought art was fluff," Wallace says. "Now, there's meat behind it."
The A+ approach, developed by researchers in North Carolina, is grounded in Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences -- the idea that people have eight intelligences (verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist), and schools must tap them all to help every child reach full potential. A+ schools commit to eight "essentials," including integrated daily arts instruction that encompasses drama, music, visual art, and writing.
Oklahoma A+ Schools, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the effort, provides intensive training, ongoing professional development (last summer, Wilson's third-grade team attended workshops at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum), and resources far beyond what any single school could command -- for instance, a partnership with the San Francisco Symphony. Researchers at Oklahoma universities track the results.
The A+ story began in 1998, when the Kirkpatrick Foundation, in Oklahoma City, invited a group of educators to explore school-reform approaches. The group wanted to accomplish two things: improve academic achievement and reinvigorate arts education, which had begun to slip -- most glaringly in schools with sizable poor and minority populations. "When we think of the attributes of a good school, we see the disadvantages and the discriminatory practices that have stripped all the richness and the joy from our schools in greatest need," says Jean Hendrickson, executive director of Oklahoma A+ Schools.
The group searched the country for models that emphasized arts, required a whole-school commitment, were rooted in the daily practice of the classroom teacher, and were shown through research to be effective. The A+ initiative met all the criteria.
The Oklahoma network, started in 2002, has fifty-two schools -- public, private, and charter; rich and poor; rural and urban; grades P-12. State test results show that A+ schools score above average for their districts in reading and math. An independent evaluation in Oklahoma City public schools found that students in A+ schools significantly outperformed demographically matched students in other schools.
At Wilson, test scores and attendance are up. Every week, the school gathers for the Friday Finale, as students clamor to sing, read their poems, show their paintings, or describe a powerful history project. "They're so excited to talk about all they're learning," says Principal Sandra Kent. "Confidence has soared."
Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.