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
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Elementary children doing movement in class
VIDEO: Music and Dance Drive Academic Achievement
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

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Barbara Sam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a teacher at an OMA school in Tucson Arizona. It is so wonderful to teach the standards for Language arts through music. My class has an Opera team come two times a week. They teach the child how to create an opera. They are in the process of writing the music, writing the story, and developing the characters. This process touches on most of our state standards for first grade. This reinforces what I teach in my class. It is so much fun. It means so much more to the children when it is done this way. I hope we always get to keep this program.

David Price's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great article. I've been leading a UK project, (Musical Futures - supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, into engaging more kids in the High School Music curriculum. The website has a ton of free resources which anyone can download. We have a problem in many countries: the most popular cultural activity for young people, music, is the least popular subject when it comes to making a choice in school. In many countries (including the UK) fewer than one in ten students make a positive choice to do music, beyond the age of 14. We've found that, by incorporating the way music is made informally, we've revitalised this as a curriculum subject. Elective choices rise from between 40% - 400%, and attendance, behaviour and overall motivation is sharply improved.

Almost one-third of all high schools in England now use our methods, and small numbers of schools are now telling us about similar successes in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. The arts may be great in supporting learning across the school, but music needs to be a vitally engaging subject in its own right - otherwise we find ourselves advocating for something, which our student numbers would appear to contradict. They don't HAVE to go elsewhere for their arts entitlement!

Richard Bowers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I date back to the times that Getty and the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (NALAA) - now Americans for the Arts were working to codify the role of arts in education. Since that time I have been on the founding boards of several arts high schools around the nation as well as a couple of new arts magnet schools. Historically arts high school perform better than the "main street vintage" high school. This performance is not only measured in academic success, but in the personal and social growth of the students. There are fewer absentees, fewer drop-outs, fewer in-school crimes, etc. There is no question in my mind that the efforts made by NCLB, though well-meaning, were still formulated by people who had little or no understanding of the enormous contribution the arts make in the lives of students.
They make teaching a pleasure because daily successr are leaping from every conrner of the classroom not just measured by a standard test..
Respectfully your

Richard Bowers Ed.D.

tarrah 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

argue for the arts

noran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In fact, opening young people's minds to the power of art is an important part of their life.

Josh Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sound like an excellent program and I really hope it made it through the budget cuts. It's rare that I hear something positive coming out of TUSD, but this sounds like a fantastic program. Music and arts generally seem to get overlooked in k-8 education, but hopefully this will start to gain traction elsewhere and maybe at some point in the future national acceptance.


Tucson Labs

tucson web design's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the 6th grade I had an award winning math teacher in Northern California. Her name is Ms. Liotta. She swore by playing classical music during class time as a way to stimulate her student's minds.

Katherine Bolman PhD's picture
Katherine Bolman PhD
Creating a course in the history of art and architecture around the world. might be useful for the work you are doing.
I have been creating this site all alone. Would any of your fellow teachers like to work with me. I want each micro lesson to have music and do an art piece to be done at the end of the short lesson.
Katherine Bolman

Tom Denner's picture

Music was the key which helped Albert Einstein become one of the smartest men who has ever lived. Music affects the amplitude and frequency of brain waves, which can be measured by an electro-encephalogram and by stimulating a positive attitude in the listeners thereby providing them with motivation. Classical music in particular has been found to reduce tension and enhance specific types of intelligence such as verbal ability and spatial-temporal reasoning, though it does not increase general intelligence. While music appears to enhance some individuals' learning, it must also be considered that it may also be distracting to others. Tests using an Infra Red Repeater have shown that music does however help the majority of learners to absorb complex information.

Kurt Wootton's picture
Kurt Wootton
Habla: The Center for Language and Culture

I appreciate the multidimensional quality of the documentation of this project - reading the article, watching a video, and having the opportunity to download the PDFs. I particularly like Fran's conclusion "Of course, nobody -- least of all, kids -- participates in art to test better." The video shows engaged students, listening to the teaching artists and then later creating their own work in response. The student's faces show the value of OMA's work. I hope we can move towards a day when we realize that the arts are an essential core of every child's education, regardless of scores on standardized tests.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.