Monday, May 09, 2005

School Arts isn't quite dead yet.

With all the auto shops, fast-food joints and boarded-up houses in the vicinity, it is somewhat disorienting to find Mr. Longest operating out of a $17 million performing arts annex, part of a recently completed $50 million renovation of New Albany High School that was financed by property taxes. With its airy glass lobbies and soaring curved roofs, its 24-hour radio station, television broadcast center, huge indoor pool and student bank, the building could be mistaken for the centerpiece of a college campus. But it's a public school. Despite local poverty (one-third of New Albany's 2,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches), residents rejected a tax cut - by a ratio of eight to one - in order to pay for the improvements. Steve Sipes, the principal, said they had done so because the arts at New Albany had over the years brought a measure of pride, comparable only to that generated by the sports teams, to a city that's seen better days.

Mr. Sipes's superintendent, Dennis Brooks, who has occasionally borrowed costumes from the theater department for Halloween, concurred. "Arts programs nationwide are suffering because of the pressure No Child Left Behind has put on schools to move more resources into math and English," he said, referring to the federal law mandating testing standards. "If we were forced to do that here, you'd have quite a fight on your hands, because we agree with the research that says the arts help kids do better in school." Indeed, when Mr. Longest, who himself attended New Albany, was interviewed for the job of drama teacher in 1984, the crucial question everyone asked him was "Can you do the big musicals?"

It is so good to see a school sticking with the arts. and bringing it to the level of a sports team is even better. This is a great thing.

The story, not unsurprisingly, doesn't talk about the rest of the school, but I hope they are linking the play and all the work that goes into it into the rest of the curriculum. Learning by doing is far more powerful then sitting in a lecture. Doing it "for real" is even more powerful. Imagine studying waves and interference in physics class while trying to tame the audio board. History class comes alive while discussing the time when the play was first produced. The entire school could be studying the play while it is in production. Making it real is not so hard when you have everyone on the same page.

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