Back in 2010, after being transferred to teach at Houston’s High School Ahead Academy, educator Rickey Polidore was under pressure. Confronted with a student population enrolled as middle school students but who were actually one or two grades behind, Polidore had neither the budget nor the staff support required to effectively teach these students what they were required to master in order to move on to high school. The students were in real danger of giving up on school and themselves.
He knew arts in the classroom would not only compel students to improve their behavior and show up to class, but also help them understand abstract concepts. Being an artist and musician, Polidore envisioned an arts-integrated approach to teaching; a methodology incorporating the arts with the core curriculum and the specific needs of at-risk students. He also knew he couldn't so it alone.
In collaboration with Houston Arts Partners director Mary Mettenbrink, as well as organizations including the International House of Blues Foundation, Musiqa, Writers In the Schools, and The Menil Collection, arts-integrated lessons designed to support a core curriculum of English, Math and Social Studies were created for HSAA students. The Hobby Center, Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Houston Ballet were also tapped to help create arts-integrated experiences.
Two hundred students were chosen to participate. Half received arts-integrated lessons including choir singing, creative writing and hand drumming, and experienced off-site field trips. The other half received no arts-integrated lessons. Over several weeks, Polidore and other HSAA staff monitored and recorded the participating students’ disciplinary incidents, in-school and out-of-school suspensions and attendance. Polidore also paid close attention to his students' sense of self worth, which, while harder to quantify as hard "data," is nevertheless something any teacher or parent can detect in the eyes of a child.
“I am not bored any more…I am more focused and am passing with A’s and B’s .” - High School Ahead Academy student testimony
YAH artists traveled to HSAA to present lessons correlated to more abstract concepts in the core curriculum. “Ratio and proportion,” says Polidore, as an example. “When a student sees that in a textbook, it’s a little confusing. But if you tell them: 'Today we’re going mix one-part white paint, three parts blue to get a light blue,' you teach the value system using ratio and proportion. Then, when they go to their math class, they can understand — it's real to them now. 3 to 1 is 33 per cent.”
So in classes with drummer Joseph Dixon, HSAA students not only played drums but also learned how to identify the main idea, sequential order and antagonist and protagonist of a story or a song. Under the direction of Musiqa’s Karol Bennett, students sang and explored how certain styles of music influence and shape American culture.
Some students developed their creative expression and a career skill by learning how to silk screen T-shirts. Others, with the help of Writers in the Schools, improved their English language skills by analyzing stories and scenarios and applying what they learned to their own creative writing.
A visit to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to see the Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color in Space and Time exhibit helped to address scientific theory and color spectrums. A tour of Civil Rights era photography on display at the Menil Collection supported the in-school lessons that featured written texts from that time period. At the end of the second school semester, 60 HSAA students gave a well-received public performance of singing, poetry, and drumming at the House of Blues.
At the end of the 2010-11 school year in May, data was analyzed to see if the project had a quantifiable impact, be it positive or negative, on student achievement. Polidore and Mettenbrink recently presented this data from their collaboration to “The Second Annual Summer Program Evaluation and Research Series,” a half-day conference for teachers and school administrators who have conducted research in the Houston Independent School District.
Comparing the second semester to the first, among the 100 students who received arts-integrated lessons, there was a 21% decrease in weekly incidents of acting out, fighting and other inappropriate outbursts. There were significant decreases of in-school and out-of-school suspensions. Polidore credits the decreases to the simple fact that if a student were suspended, he or she would be unable to participate in the arts-integrated lessons. The arts gave the students something to look forward to.
“I’d do the same routine over and over…” one student explains, describing the first semester. “Do my work, finish first, people would copy (it), I’d get a fair grade, and wait to go to the next class. It was so boring. Then after months and months of waiting for something exciting to happen, it did!”
Drumming, poetry, silk screening, and singing are all activities that can play a crucial role in a child’s behavioral development.
Figures for improvement in TAKS scores and other barometers of classroom learning were inconclusive and the program's organizers acknowledge more study is needed over a longer time than a single semester.
Imagine if the arts-integrated classes were in place for not just one but two semesters. Or for all four years of high school. And made available not just to 100 students, but to 1,000. Or 10,000.
“About 60 per cent of our kids in the Texas public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. And so we’re going to tighten the belt and the people who are going to get squeezed are the least among us. I mean, let’s face it, that’s who’s going to get hit.” - Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
So what happens now? A new school year has started. Cuts to education and the arts continue. The youngest members of our ethnically and economically diverse community are bearing the brunt of our state's deficit. But collaborations like that of Houston Arts Partners with High School Ahead Academy show what is possible in the current economic and political climate. Awareness of what is possible is key.
“We would like to replicate (the collaboration) with a wider participation from other HISD students and schools," Mettenbrink says. "HSAA was the perfect school for us to begin with since it has so many challenges to begin with, teachers all new, principal new, no teacher resources, challenges with every student at-risk of failing and dropping out.”
YAH and Polidore’s mission now is to make people aware of their experiment and to consider it as a template for the future.
Polidore is now teaching art at Lovett Elementary. He is enthusiastic about his new position, and will continue to advocate for having the arts in all schools, especially those where resources are limited or non-existent.
“The (student) population that I’ve been with since I’ve been in education, the at-risk, low socio-economic students who are in danger of dropping out or who have lots of things working against them in their educational lives…it’s really tearing me apart to have to leave…but even though I’m at Lovett, I’ll still have my hands in the population I’m used to working with,” he says.
The full Houston Arts Partners report “The Effect of Creative Learning on Student Achievement” is available at www.HoustonArtsPartners.org.