Focusing on Art

Focusing on Art

Budget discussions prompt soul searching about Jefferson-Houston’s arts-integration program.

Children giggled and stared at their principal. James Brown was dead, and now Kimberley Graves would be honoring him in her own special way — by doing the Mashed Potato. The dance, popularized by the late entertainer in 1960, was part of a month-long celebration of Brown as the Artist of the Month at Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics.

“The kids told me I was doing it wrong,” said Graves on a recent afternoon in her office, throwing up her arms in exasperation. “I thought I could do anything, but I guess I can’t do the Mashed Potato.”

In the entertainment world, Brown was known as the “hardest working man in show business.” Here in Alexandria, Graves may become known as one of the hardest working principals in the city. Since being named as the school’s fifth principal in the past six years, she has thrown herself into her work — literally — by shuffling across the dance floor with her students and trying to make sense of the school’s arts focus.

“I think saying that Jefferson-Houston is a focus school is a little misleading,” said Graves. “When people hear that, they think of performance schools like Duke Ellington. But we’re not a performing arts school.”

The school does not offer special arts classes like violin or painting. Instead, Graves said, the school’s Arts Integration Specialist Kate Graham works with teachers and students to infuse the arts into the day-to-day lesson plans at the elementary school. For example, Graham recently taught teachers a “pumpkin dance” in which students learn about the growth and development of pumpkin plants. Graves and Graham describe the arts-integration philosophy at the school as a way of weaving visual and performing arts into the standard curriculum, an effort to nurture creativity while bolstering student performance.

“It’s a different way of teaching,” said Graham, who became the arts-integration specialist at the beginning of the school year. “Arts integration helps students capitalize on their strengths.”

BUT THE PROGRAM has been whittled away over the years. Last year, the school lost a drama instructor. Last month, Superintendent Rebecca Perry suggested eliminating the band and orchestra instruction for students in grades Kindergarten through the third grade — essentially creating a music program that is identical to schools without an arts focus. The School Board is set to make a final determination on the budget by Jan. 31.

“If we’re going to do an arts focus at the school, we either need to do it well or not do it at all,” said Charles Wilson, a School Board member whose children attended Jefferson-Houston in the late 1990s. “We may be deceiving ourselves by calling it a 'focus school,' and I’d like to see some justification of how the arts-integration is helping the school. If it’s not, we may need to get rid of it and start over.”

Graves said that instability at the school has contributed to a revolving door of principals neglecting to implement an arts-integration program that has a positive influence on test scores.

Last year, before Graves became principal, the school failed to meet state standards with some of the lowest grades in the division — 66 percent of students passed the English test and 59 percent of students passed the Math test.

Some of the scores were very low. For example, only 40 percent of fourth-grade students were able to pass the Math test and only 20 percent of fifth grade students with disabilities were able to pass the Science test.

“My focus is on academics,” said Graves. “We’ve had so much transition and change at Jefferson-Houston that I don’t think the arts-integration program has had an opportunity to grow and develop.”

THE SCHOOL’S DEMOGRAPHICS were radically transformed in 1999 when the School Board approved a controversial redistricting plan that shifted much of the elementary school’s west-end student population to the recently built Tucker Elementary School. In one year, the school went from having 50 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch to 77 percent of its students eligible.

Then-superintendent Herb Berg called the plan “Scenario 15-R,” and said it was necessary to remedy overcrowding in western and southern schools. But it was controversial with many parents and teachers, many of whom publicly opposed the plan during a series of heated public hearings in the spring of 1999. Margaret Delia, who was then a third grade teacher at Jefferson-Houston, told School Board members that would “re-segregate” the school.

“This proposal leaves our inner city school as anything but diverse,” Delia said in one of the hearings. “We’ve been thrown back to the good old days of 1972.”

After months of acrimonious debate, the School Board voted to adopt the redistricting plan in a seven-to-two vote. Critics of the plan stood at the rear of the board chamber wearing white T-shirts that read “No More Resegregation.” As an effort to alleviate some of their opposition, board members labeled two of the schools as “focus schools” — making Lyles-Couch a traditional academy and Jefferson-Houston an arts academy. The traditional academy would use uniforms to promote a sense of "orderliness and respect," while the arts focus would use performance and visual arts to enhance the learning experience.

But Sally Ann Baynard, one of the two board members who voted against the plan, said that creating focus schools would not solve the problems created by concentrating a majority of the city’s at-risk population at Jefferson-Houston.

“Unfunded or under-funded focus schools are not going to succeed,” said Baynard before casting her vote against the plan.

THE POTENTIAL LOSS of a band and orchestra instructor at the school is a move that Superintendent Rebecca Per considers necessary during a tight budget year in which every dollar will be closely scrutinized. Although she wants to focus attention at the school on academic improvement, she recommended keeping the arts-integration specialist to give the teachers tools for using the arts to teach core curriculum.

“Because Jefferson-Houston is a struggling school, we need to focus on the academics,” said Superintendent Rebecca Perry. “If the arts fit into that, fine.”

School Board member Scott Newsham, whose daughters attended the school from 2000 to 2002, considers himself a “strong supporter” of the arts focus. He recalls that one of his daughters learned about sound waves by performing a special dance, a method of learning that he said was very successful. He said that he opposes Perry’s recommendation to eliminate the band and orchestra teacher.

“I’d like to find some way to retain that position,” said Newsham. “The research shows that music instruction plays a positive role in the education of children.”

School Board member Blanche Maness, who served as principal of the Jefferson-Houston from 1996 to 2001, said that the arts focus at the school is nothing like the one she designed in 1999. Her vision for the arts focus included special classes that weren’t available at other schools, like creative writing and drama. She said that she also opposes Perry’s recommendation to get rid of the band and orchestra position, which she said she will try to replace during the School Board’s budget process, which culminates at the end of January.

“It seems like the administration has been slowly eroding the arts program at Jefferson-Houston over the years,” said Maness. “And frankly, it’s disappointing.”