Why Arts? A Learning Commitment to Our Young People

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balloons2I had an opportunity to spend time in Stephanie Helvin’s room recently at Stone-Robinson Elementary. Stephanie teaches art. Watching her second graders as they began work on creating line drawings of hot air balloons, I noted that she introduced them to science, math, and new vocabulary as she shared with them how to turn overlapping circles into dimensional drawings.

Why arts education? In a day and age when conversations about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in pK-16 curricula and workforce preparation dominate education, what makes the arts still relevant? In many public schools across the United States, art room doors have closed, teachers have been let go, and art time has shifted to academic time.

Why then have we worked in Albemarle Schools to purposefully sustain a budget commitment to the arts despite current trends across the United States to slash arts from schools’ offerings?

As Kai Kight, Stanford graduate, says, “Innovation happens at intersections.” The capability to innovate directly affects our potential to ensure a thriving economy and culture across our communities. Arts education builds innovative thinking.

Our division has a critical commitment to educating young people well so they will be ready for their future as citizens, lifelong learners, and employers and employees. We believe this  comes from a well-rounded education to sustain learners’ creativity as well as to build their analytical skills across the curricula. Arts do both.

For example, a recent video shared with me by Albemarle High orchestra teacher Carrie Finnegan captured the neuroscience underpinnings of how playing a musical instrument benefits your brain and impacts both linguistic and mathematical functions:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/R0JKCYZ8hng]

We also understand that learning through arts will build deep cognitive learning in young students:

“The arts are not just expressive and affective, they are deeply cognitive. They develop essential thinking tools — pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical representations; careful observation of the world; and abstraction from complexity.” (How the Arts Develop the Young Brain, Sousa)

Our fabulous arts teachers across the county’s schools understand the importance of their role to build this deep learning among children by keeping creativity alive as our learners move through school. Andrew Sherogan, Meriwether Lewis Elementary, and Molly Foster, Hollymead Elementary, are two of our visual arts teachers who routinely share that message in their blogs as they profile children engaging in our arts programs through project-based learning.

stem2We are not alone in our commitment to putting the A from arts into our contemporary focus on STEM.  We see the value in STEAM just as top universities do, including our own University of Virginia.

President Teresa Sullivan and actor Kevin Spacey described this  at the recent UVA President’s Speaker Series for the Arts:

“The University’s arts curriculum inspires creativity, innovation and discovery, while giving our students across all disciplines opportunities to integrate the arts into their U.Va. experience.” (Sullivan)

“We have this system that we call STEM, to teach sciences and technologies. Now there are a lot of schools who are adding an ‘A’ and calling it ‘STEAM.’ ‘A’ is for arts,” Spacey said. “I think it’s incredibly important because while math, science and technology are hugely important, if we leave behind a young person’s imagination or creativity, I think they won’t have as full a life.” (Spacey)

We realize in Albemarle that young people draw upon arts skills to help them design, build, engineer, produce as well as use math, science, engineering and technology competencies – whether creating an electric guitar or 3-D printing a prosthetic hand. The renowned WAHS robotics teams use a multitude of integrated skills essential to their design process. It’s not just their engineering minds at work. There’s a wealth of creativity embedded throughout their design decisions.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/OQ1gR21i-Qc]

Kai Kight, graduate of of Stanford University, certainly understands the value of integrating the arts across the curricula while sustaining a passion for “arts for arts sake.” So do engineering professors. One said to me recently on a tour of our schools that a keen grasp .. of “spatial thinking helps our young people excel as they enter higher levels of math from trigonometry to advanced calculus.”

Arts are as important today as they have ever been in human history. Arts opportunities engage learners’ interests and inspire careers as well as a lifetime of personal enjoyment. It’s why I’m committed to arts education for all students we serve in our schools.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/jDpg_l5Y89w]

 

 

Dear Teachers: A Letter of Gratitude During National Autism Awareness Month

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I receive letters and comments with some regularity from parents expressing thanks for teachers who have made a difference in the lives of learners enrolled in our schools. Once a parent described a teacher as creating “Kodak moments” in her child’s life. I think the following post describes just that.

When Amy Price Azano, mother, shared a link to a national blog post she wrote about Albemarle educators who made a difference not just in the life of her young child but her family, I asked her if I could cross-post it here. She agreed. April is National Autism Awareness Month and her blog post references its particular significance to her. I’m honored to share it with you.

Inspiring Others

        By Amy Price Azano on April 1st, 2014

April is National Autism Awareness Month. April 2nd marks World Autism Awareness Day. Light it up blue tomorrow for World Autism Day. Today’s blog post is in honor of these celebrations.

Dear teachers: Thank you for sharing our “autism life”

First doctor’s visit. First haircut. First wave. First “Momma.” Autism is measured by these missed developmental milestones, and I have long since misplaced those typically developing checklists and corresponding stickers for my son’s baby book. His first doctor’s visit was for colic and every appointment that followed had its own nightmarish retelling. His first haircut had a similar story: fearful screams as if the barber would slice off a leg rather than a soft shaft of hair. We had no diagnosis, only a sinking feeling that something was wrong. He was a year old. He wanted no part of his birthday party or the birthday cake or the presents or the noise or the company. He got a “first birthday” sticker in his book, but not the stickers that would follow: first wave hello, say bye-bye. He did not say “momma” or “dada” or “milk” or “water” or “bed” or “hi” or “I love you.” We were left with an empty book and too many sticky reminders of those unreached milestones.

This was the autism life as we knew it — managing the daily challenges, triumphs, the revolving door of speech and occupational therapists in and out of our home, the unimaginable patience we drummed up each day, the enthusiasm for small requests, the attempts at eye contact and sounds that resembled words. Autism didn’t just isolate my son from the world; it isolated and insulated all of our worlds. There were no family vacations and too often our best laid plans were force abandoned by meltdowns or overwhelming anxiety.

That’s until I met you: the teacher in his first self-contained special-education classroom. My son was my first exposure to autism, but you were experienced with students on the spectrum. As I tried to explain the nuances of his anxieties, you reassured me and said: I will keep him safe. I cried knowing he would be afraid and confused, and you replied: He will have fun and learn how to be more independent. And each time, you were right. That’s until you kicked him out. You argued that the self-contained classroom was no longer his least restrictive environment, so you helped me find a hybrid, inclusive (reverse mainstream) preschool classroom where he would have typically-developing peers who could help with his speech and social interactions.

So then I met you: the dual-endorsed elementary and special-education teacher who invited my son to the classroom on a quiet evening after a long day of teaching other students. You sat on the floor with him while he looked at trucks and trains. You didn’t ask him any questions. You just sat quietly while he explored, and you joined him. He grabbed a car so you grabbed a car. He put down a block. You put one on top. Then you pulled out a basket and started cleaning up, and he followed in unison without either of you saying a word. Weeks later, you asked your bus driver friend to park outside your classroom during the middle of the school day. I told you he was scared of the big bus, despite his love for anything with wheels. You said: Let me try and led all the students outside, rolled pennies onto the floor, and created a scavenger hunt. All of a sudden, my son was climbing onto a bus looking for pennies — just like the rest of his new friends. You emailed me nearly every day of the entire school year to tell me about his meltdowns, his accomplishments, his response to the fire drill, the student assembly, and you brainstormed with me how we might get him potty trained before kindergarten. You graduated him with honors.

Now onto the big school with the big bus and the big kids. And there you were again: the teacher. This time an inclusive, general-education kindergarten teacher with a huge smile and a high voice and bright running shoes. You taught him to love school, to read, to make friends. You coached him into taking turns on the tricycle. You made him star of the week and came to his first ever friend birthday party because he invited you. You hugged him every day (and still do when he sees you in the hall).

Now we get to track educational milestones — and they’re sticky, too, with glue and finger paint and your silly smiley faces at the top of his first grade work. My son has a favorite author, greets his bus driver every morning, has play dates with his neighborhood friend, enjoys school and told me twice today that he loves me — and it’s largely because of you, teacher. Doctors visits are still challenging, meltdowns happen, haircuts are out of the question, but now I have someone from the “outside” who understands, who will brainstorm interventions and offer objective advice. You have asked me to trust you and, in return, you love my son. You keep him safe, teach him independence, and instill a love for learning. You honor his way of being in the world. You are a part of our autism life and make us all feel less isolated. Never underestimate your role or question whether or not you make a difference. Trust me: You do.

Amy Price Azano is a professor of adolescent literacy at Virginia Tech. Follow her on Twitter @ruralprof. Her original post was shared at Smart Blog on Education

Educational Excellence: A Community Commitment to Our Future

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Excellence in education is how any society prepares for a successful future. Whether we look near – the Virginia public education ideas pioneered by Thomas Jefferson – or further – the economic success in the 1950s and 1960s of states with large investments in education – or much further – nations such as Ireland which transformed their economies through education – we understand that great schools, and a commitment to education for all, are the pathway to both prosperity and democracy.

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Fifth Graders Raise the U.S. Flag Each Morning

Here in Albemarle County we have always known this as true, and we have consistently chosen to make such a community commitment to our future. That’s found in decisions to build new regional high schools in the 1970s and 1990s, to the aggressive replacement of aging elementary schools over past decades, to the wide support for our top quality programs including gifted programs, special education, English-language education, art, music, library services, physical education, world languages, and career-technical education. It’s also represented in a community belief in our customized programs such as our two charter schools, 3 STEM academies, CATEC, AVID (a program to prepare first generation college students), and Bright Stars pre-kindergarten programs.

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400 Student Musicians Now Play Strings in Albemarle County Schools

These commitments, joined to our promise of the kind of individualized support possible because of small class sizes and community schools, and linked to the continuous innovation which provides our students with contemporary skills, have led Albemarle County into a position of educational leadership which has supported this area becoming the most economically successful community in all of Central Virginia.

Albemarle County parents, educators, and our business community share a high standard of excellence in our educational aspirations for all Albemarle’s children, just as we share high expectations for our community’s future. That expected educational excellence means not just all those programs already mentioned, but also a broad range of top-notch extracurricular opportunities across athletics, arts, academics and clubs.

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Analytical Thinkers   At Work

It means keeping elementary and secondary students on separate buses and on separate start and end schedules in our schools. It means teachers being highly competent in not just their content areas but also in their expertise to work with every learner who enters our schools. It means competitive market compensation and professional training to recruit and retain top-notch employees. It means availability of the best learning resources in every classroom and library, both traditional and contemporary. It means maintaining our buildings and grounds so that we avert the high cost of maintenance when repairs are deferred and so that when people enter our schools they know that our taxpayers’ investments in infrastructure are valued through our care.

Excellence means that our educators work with our young people every day to meet community expectations for high performance benchmarked not just against Virginia’s standards but also compared to the top performing schools across the United States – the schools that graduate the young people our children will compete with for college admissions and for jobs as they move through their adult lives. And, excellence means that we support our educators so that they are sure to meet those performance benchmarks year after year in arts, academics, athletics, community service, and leadership.

The success of our schools – on every measure – is well documented. The honors for our work come continuously. But of most importance, we know that our commitment to excellence represents our community’s values – values which have been held dear despite a long season of recession over the past five years.

We know this because our community and business leaders have made it clear.

Our realtors know our Division adds value to real estate portfolios.  Just go to their websites.

“Add the gorgeous environment, more commercial development…, fabulous public school reputations at all three levels, and lack of development elsewhere in the county, Crozet became attractive to even folks commuting up 29N for NGIC and DIA positions.”

“Do better schools increase house prices? From my perspective as a Realtor in the Charlottesville area, the answer is yes. I have never had buyers tell me that they wanted to live in a bad school district; but virtually every single one – whether they have kids or not – wants to be in a good school district. Frankly, I don’t need metrics or analysis or data to support my conclusion; I know that people buying homes in Charlottesville and Albemarle want good schools.”

Our growing BioTech community and Charlottesville Business Innovation Council members support school programs and value our educators’ work that helps a regional tech economy grow.

Solution Finding

Solution Finding

Our local higher education and business community in general want to sustain public school excellence because great schools are an asset to the entire community, whether in recruiting employees or ensuring that families have access to excellent educational opportunities for their children.

“At the University of Virginia, it’s important to our faculty and staff to have strong local schools for their families. The University is also engaged in various partnership programs with local schools, and these partnerships have had a long-standing, mutually beneficial effect in our community.”   

                                 -President Teresa Sullivan, University of Virginia                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Our citizens, including the growing number of retirees locating here, want to sustain a highly successful and crime free community, one that provides a rich and vibrant culture in Mr. Jefferson’s home county. Rather than adding to a community’s social services and criminal justice costs, they know a well-educated workforce benefits a community’s quality of life. Because of our community’s commitment to educational excellence, rather than aspiring to average, the school division is touted as significant to why this county ranks as one of the best places to live, work, raise families, and retire in the United States.   
Educational excellence is the gold standard for top communities in the United States. Albemarle’s citizens know that. It’s why they support devoting resources to provide quality learning opportunities for all our children. And, that’s a legacy from Mr. Jefferson that still resonates today. 
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