Columnist 

School uses art to help students get smart


At North Little Rock’s Pike View Elementary, principal Melanie Landrum is pointing to a wall-sized array of cards with the names and test scores of every student in the school.

Like a giant Excel spreadsheet, the cards tell teachers how each kid is performing. Those who are struggling get individual attention, and there’s a special chart for those who are really falling behind.

“April’s working with him. I’m working with him. Brandy’s working with him,” she says, pointing to cards. “We’re all putting everything we’ve got into these kids because they’ve got to catch up by the time they’re in fifth, because they’re going to be sunk in middle school if they can’t read and compute.”

Pike View is an urban school with a high minority population. Ninety-three percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced lunch prices, and students from that kind of family income background tend to do worse academically than their wealthier peers. On the state’s 2011 benchmark exams, 70 percent of its third- and fourth-graders scored proficient or advanced in literacy and 60 percent did that well in math, placing it well behind the state’s scores of 79 and 84 percent.

The school is in its first year in the Arkansas A-plus network, an expanding group of 12 schools that incorporate art throughout daily instruction. The A-plus method started in North Carolina and then expanded to Oklahoma, where 70 schools now use it, including a majority of the state’s charter schools.

The idea is to let students create and produce rather than memorize and regurgitate, as you and I did throughout most of our educational careers. Students in one second grade classroom design nature scenes out of styrofoam lunch boxes as part of their study of habitats. For another lesson, they construct cubes using marshmallows and toothpicks because second graders typically don’t understand three-dimensional concepts on two-dimensional worksheets.

Their teacher, Dayna Maloch, contrasts this year with last, when the school was using a more traditional “sit and get” environment. One student who flunked her class last year is thriving now. “You’re not the Charlie Brown teacher – just ‘wah-wa-wah-wa-wah’ all day long,” she says. “Because you’re moving around the room, they’re engaged, they’re learning, they’re exploring, they’re talking about what they’re learning instead of me doing all the talking.”

Studies have shown that arts instruction helps young brains develop and helps students learn. Music, for example, is math turned into a melody.

But the A-plus method is about more than just art; it’s also about celebrating different kinds of intelligences. Students are tested at the beginning of the year – not to determine if they are smart, but to see how they are smart. Then lessons and methods are tailored to their learning styles. For example, the body-kinestethic learners, the ones who need to move, have the chance to do so rather than being disciplined and force-fed Ritalin to make them sit quietly in a desk. Teachers also are tested so they’ll better understand how to adapt their own learning styles to their students.

I spend a lot of time covering public education, and I can tell you that schools are getting better – maybe not good enough fast enough, but they’re getting better. A fundamental shift is occurring both in the classroom and in the bureaucracy. Schools are less willing to accept defeat with individual students, they are experimenting with new instruction methods, and they are making the lessons more relevant to the real world.

They have a difficult job because they are asked to fix problems they didn’t create – namely, broken families and a culture that doesn’t always value education the way it should. But they have no choice but to overcome those problems, which is why you’ll find Melanie Landrum and her teachers keeping up with each student’s progress and giving extra attention to those falling behind.

I mention to her that the room with all the names on the wall looks like a war room where plans are being crafted to reach an objective.

“It is a war room. We are battling,” she says.

Yes, they are. Give that school an A-plus.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com