Could the Arts Spark an Education Revolution?

May 21, 2013

Unconventional moves: A principal fires security guards and reinstates arts in school.

How to fix school and improve dropout rates is a national debate that often feels complicated and impersonal—a daunting web of federal, state and local policies.

Yet real victories are happening every day in the lives of young people and those who work with them. More often than not, it takes a brave or unconventional decision to bring results.

That’s just what Principal Andrew Bott did at Orchard Gardens, a middle school in the crime-ridden Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, Mass. His story inspired me.

In 2010, Orchard Garden was ranked in the bottom five of all public schools in the state of Massachusetts. The school struggled with higher-than-average dropout rates and violence. It wasn’t just the students who were struggling: the school went through five principals in seven years, and more than half of new teachers did not return for a second year.

I first heard about Orchard Gardens when I watched an NBC feature on the school. It was a place that often felt like a prison, students and teachers told interviewers. Like many urban schools, Orchard Gardens spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on armed security guards ostensibly placed to protect the school’s 800 students. Guards regularly interrupted classes to search students for dangerous weapons.

When Bott took over in 2010, he saw the misalignment of student performance and student needs.  Test scores were steadily dropping and the students weren’t getting an education that was well-rounded. The school lacked positive energy and creative spirit.

So he made some changes. He slightly expanded the school day and hired teachers who knew how to use data—a proven approach to turning around low-performing schools. 

But his boldest move was to fire all of the school’s security guards and use the money to reinvest in the school’s art programs.

Watch more about Orchard Gardens' transformation

Evidence suggests it’s working: In Bott’s first full year on the job, the students showed more progress than most others in the state on the 2011 Massachusetts standardized test, the MCAS, and showed double the number of seventh graders scored proficient in English and math than the year before. Now in 2013, Orchard Gardens has one of the fastest student improvement rates statewide.

While scores and performance have improved, Bott notes in his interview with NBC that scores are still below average in many areas.  Orchard Gardens is on the right track, but these improvements take time and investment to show results.

Yet, this story isn’t wholly about test scores. He credits the re-introduction of arts programs, specifically, with helping the students feel more connected with and respect for school. “The students, once described as loud and unruly, have found their focus,” NBC reports. And, best of all, it keeps the kids coming to school every day.

Early evidence indicates that more students see school as a relevant, creative place where they can find respect and support.

A Risky Switch

It’s an inspiring story of transformation—but not all that surprising when you consider what we know.

For me, this story is all about his choices. Of all the cuts he could have made to restore arts programs, Bott chose security guards. A brave choice in the current climate, but one that likely makes sense to the students and researchers alike who have begun to raise concerns about school security measures, arguing that random K-9 searches and arrests can be counter-productive, failing to create safer schools and students who feel safe and connected.

The only thing braver than firing security staff may have been re-instating the arts—and framing that as a more effective means to create a safer, better school.

As the country debates what should be considered part of the “common core,” arts rarely make the shortlist. The attitude often seems to be, “Arts are nice, but they won’t lead to paying jobs and successful careers.”

And rarely do you hear the argument that increasing engagement through the arts can trump guards and iron bars in keeping students safe. Yet, it's reasonable to conclude that fewer students are being driven away by an atmosphere that assumes they are not to be trusted—that they’re perps or victims in waiting.

A Case for Shifting STEM to STEAM

As someone who grew up in a family home surrounded by the arts, and whose lifetime extra-curricular activities always included (and still do) dance, singing and visual arts, I have long believed in creative expression as a key part of learning and development.

It's not just instinct. There is significant research indicating that visual and performing arts classes in school promote healthy youth development from the start, and are associated with better cognitive ability, improving motivation, concentration and teamwork in older youth—all crucial to core learning. 

The evidence of this is so strong that some advocates are calling for a rewrite of the nation’s focus on “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) to the equally appealing “STEAM” by adding arts to the core curriculum.

Most education data underlines the importance of positive, nurturing relationships with caring adults. Perhaps the combination of arts and stable relationships could be a powerful double-whammy when it comes to improving test scores, fixing the U.S. education system and even reducing "trouble" in schools.

Once labeled a "troubled" and struggling student, Orchard Gardens eighth grader Keyvaughn Little puts it this way: “Now that the teachers help me and push me on the right track, I can actually see a future for myself.”

Bott and Orchard Gardens are in the early stages of this bold experiment. Could it ultimately help reinvigorate support for the arts in schools? I certainly hope so. As an advocate for the arts, I am inspired by this developing story, and hope it lends to a growing body of anecdotal and rigorous evidence showing that the arts can turn lives and schools around—and maybe even save them.

Like good choreography, the impact relies on every choice and every small step.


Alison Beth Waldman is editorial associate at SparkAction. Read more about Alison here.



Alison Beth Waldman