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Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2002 11:00 pm

The debate over the importance of a fine arts education has been the subject of numerous discussions by everyone from local teachers and school board members to the President of the United States.

In Arizona, the debate has recently increased with new legislation directing schools to meet standards governed by the controversial AIMS test, a standardized test that analyzes student knowledge on math, reading and writing. The test, which many in the education world have deemed as flawed, will eventually become a graduation requirement for Arizona high school students.

The new standards have left some fearful that schools will become preoccupied with test scores and let other programs, like fine arts, fall by the wayside, despite recent research that shows the benefits art programs can have on other academic areas and even standardized tests.

James Catterall, a researcher and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study in 1997 that gave some of the first statistical information that showed a direct correlation between students who are involved in the arts and how well they do in school.

Catterall used a U.S. Department of Education database of 25,000 surveyed students to develop his hypothesis.

The results of the study were exactly what he expected, he said.

Catterall followed the students from eighth to 12th grade, monitoring how they did on standardized tests and their grades.

By 12th grade, the students involved in arts programs exceeded those not in arts programs on standardized tests, reading, reading proficiency and history. There were also fewer students who dropped out of school that were involved in arts programs than those who weren't. There were even larger discrepancies for students with low socio-economic backgrounds.

Catterall said that students who participate in the arts and students who participate in sports do get similar benefits from the activities, but with one important difference.

"They don't get the same kind of cognitive development," he said. "(Sports) aren't devoid of cognitive implications, but they just aren't on the same level as with arts."

For many educators, Catterall's study, and others that followed, were proof of the importance of an arts education.

"The arts are very effective at reaching kids that might not otherwise be reached," said Jacky Alling, director of the Arizona Alliance for Arts Education. "Even when things like socio-economic standards are removed, across the board, students with high arts still do better."

For many educators, the research findings came as no surprise.

"There's so much more to music and art than just the cultural experience," said Becky Cardier, a music teacher at Green Fields Country Day School. "It takes steady practice and it takes perseverance. Kids get to understand if they've been involved in music for a long time that it takes hard work and time to develop skill and I think they have a better outlook on hard work and effort."

Green Fields, a private school, doesn't have to worry as much about state budget cuts and lack of funding.

But public school districts, such as Amphitheater Public Schools, have a much more difficult time, as they are constantly worrying about how the next budget cut at the state level will impact the amount of funding available for student programs.

Richard Hooley, Amphi's associate superintendent and former drama teacher, said in brainstorming sessions, when the district has to think of ways to save money, arts programs are often one of the suggestions for the chopping block.

"You bring up all kinds of crazy things," Hooley said. "That, of course, would be the worst possible scenario."

The impact of budget cuts on the Arizona Department of Education has also led to some cuts affecting arts programs.

Lisa Graham-Keegan, Arizona's former superintendent of public instruction who implemented the AIMS test, eliminated the fine arts specialist positions.

Jean Belcheff, one of the former specialists who still works for the department, said her job consisted of finding ways of connecting programs to allow teachers and principals to learn from each other to make programs better.

She and the other arts specialist, who has since left the department, were also partly responsible for implementing a one-credit fine arts requirement for high school graduates.

Since the positions were eliminated, a move she never got an explanation for, the continuity Belcheff and her co-worker were able to provide between fine arts programs in Arizona has been nearly non-existent.

"I think there's some pressure with the AIMS test, that maybe there should be more concentration on reading and more concentration on math," Belcheff said. "I think the answer is that maybe we should be more effective in our teaching. A lot of people might not want to see the statistics and research that have been done. They think that we're just pushing our own program."

Current Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera said he would like to see a reinstatement of the position, but doesn't see it as a reality due to recent budget cuts that required he eliminate 8 percent of his department's budget.

Molera said he has been encouraging arts teachers to try to integrate aspects tested by AIMS into their programs.

"I've seen those types of programs to be very effective," he said. "The thing that I tell folks is that we shouldn't have a one-size-fits-all mentality. Students learn in different ways."

Catterall said in his report that the arts often offer students a way to be engaged that they might not get out of other school programs, an idea that rings true with several local teachers.

"I have kids that tell me all the time that the only reason why they come to school is to come to art class," said Hilary Jones-Wujcik, an art teacher at Canyon del Oro High School.

"I think my students would be lost without this," said Darrell Prochaska, the band teacher at CDO.

Kenne Adams, the music and choir teacher at CDO, said he often hears similar statements.

"I don't think it is right either, but at least they're interested in something," he said.

But despite the researched effects arts have on student academic performance, support for the arts is not as high as some would like.

Last year, President George W. Bush allocated around $30 million specifically for arts education grants. For next year, so far, none has been allocated, said Ann Puderbaugh, a communications specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts, which gives grants for residencies and extracurricular arts activities specifically focused on at-risk and disabled youth.

The few federal grants that were made available this year were parceled out in totals of only a few thousand dollars each, said a spokesperson with the Arizona Department of Education.

At the state level, there are no grants available for arts education.

That means it's up to local school districts to decide how much money they want to make available for their arts programs.

Hooley said Amphi has been generally supportive of using funds for arts programs.

"Last year alone we spent more than $20,000 on new musical instruments," he said.

Another possible solution is for school districts to develop magnet schools, Alling said, but those could do more harm than good.

"In some cases, we see the arts are actually thriving," she said. "Some districts have developed magnet schools and the development of charter schools that focus on the arts. And that's wonderful and lovely as a school choice, however, what does that do for the other 800,000 kids in our state? For a district to say 'We have one magnet school so we're going to cut the arts everywhere else' isn't really good enough. No one would say that about math and no one would say that about science. We feel that every child really deserves access to a quality arts education."

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