04/13/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

New Haven Schools Find Time For Art Amid Test Prep, Education Reform

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

Arts leaders who fear that testing is squeezing out creative learning may find some hope in an after-school program in the Hill--and the reaction of one 4th-grader who refused to leave the classroom.

Elena Brennan was one of 11 students who stayed after-hours at the Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy last week to take part in an arts program run by a local not-for-profit called Arte, Inc. When her mom showed up 40 minutes early to pick her up, Elena refused to go--she was having too much fun penciling in the eyes on a self-portrait in the style of Chuck Close.

The art session at the K-8 public school at 360 Columbus Ave. came on the heels of a discussion two weeks ago among 200 artists and arts convened at the Congregation Mishkan Israel. The group raised concerns that standardized tests dominate more and more classroom time and drain arts funding in the era of school reform, hurting kids' chances to learn about the arts and grow into well-rounded adults. (Click here for a story about a larger after-school arts program getting underway at Science Park.)

A national study released this week yielded mixed results for art in school: It found there has not been an overall decline in arts education with the onset of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that kicked off a nationwide frenzy over standardized tests, but high-poverty students have less access to the arts in school than their wealthier peers.

Clemente Principal Pam Franco said Arte's after-school program is one way the school aims to find time for arts programming while also undergoing the first year of a high-stakes testing effort to turn around a failing school. Clemente is one of two schools tapped last year as turnarounds; it's the first in New Haven to be run by a for-profit company.

Arte's after-school program, which began in January, brings kids from grades 3 to 8 into the arts classroom twice a week. The class meets from 3 to 5 p.m. after the rest of the kids have gone home. Twenty-five kids are signed up for the class, though on a given day only about 15 show up, in part because the district does not provide transportation home.

On Thursday afternoon of last week, the last day of class before a long weekend, 11 students gathered in Carina Ruotolo's art class for a lesson on photo-realism. They checked out the work of Chuck Close on an overhead projector. They learned about how he changed his style after he was paralyzed from the neck down.

Kids spent the good part of an hour making a grid with rulers on which to draw their images. Then they set to drawing portraits based on photos they brought in from home, found on the Internet, or took on Ruotolo's cell phone.

Elena Brennan chose to do a self-portrait. She drew an oval for her face, as Ruotolo had suggested in a quick lesson on figure drawing. Then she set to work penciling in the features on her face.

She paused from time to time to confer with her friend, Jailenee Miranda, a classmate in the 4th grade.

At 4:20, Elena got a surprise visit from Mom. Bernarda Brennan was in the area, so she stopped by to see if she could pick up her daughter early.

The answer was no.

"I don't want to leave," protested Elena.

Mom backed down. In a way, she treasured her daughter's refusal. The family lives in Westville. They didn't pick Clemente, but got sent to the school when they struck out of the district's magnet school lottery. Clemente has been on the federal watch list for failing schools for nine years, the longest in the district.

Elena, who speaks with the grace and poise of a much older girl, wasn't too crazy about the school. Then she started going to arts class after school.

"For the first time, I see her looking forward to the school," said Brennan, a native of Chile. "She love it--she really love it. When it's art, I cannot take her out of the school."

Brennan, who studied fashion design in college, said arts education is "one of the most important things for me." So she was glad to linger for half an hour at her daughter's request.

Elena showed her a Chuck Close book Ruotolo had just passed around the class. She explained to mom about the style of drawing and the artist's paralysis.

Elena said she enjoys the class: "We're not only learning about art, we're learning about history."

Besides the after-school program, Elena and the rest of the kids at Clemente get one period of art every week. Elena said she prefers the after-school program, because the one during school hours features a lot of interruptions.

"In school, we have to stop for kids misbehaving," she said. "Here, we can get everything done."

When her teacher asked her if she wanted to stay after school to do more art, she eagerly accepted.

"I connect more to what we're doing in art class" than the rest of school, she explained.

Elena flagged one reason Principal Franco likes the arts program: It gets kids excited about school.

"Kids can be average in math and reading, but when they go into arts--and perform a rap for a thousand kids, for example--it builds self-esteem and gets them turned on to school," Franco said.

"If we're going to have a well-rounded education for any child, we've got to have arts education," she added.

The after-school arts class is one small piece of the puzzle. It serves a maximum of only 25 kids out of roughly 550 students in the school. During school, kids get one period of art and one of music each week. Some join band practice during the day; others stay after school for chorus.

Franco said at this point, "that's what we have to offer with the hours we're in school with such a short day--with all the academic pressures that are put on a school that are federally and state-mandated."

She said when Renaissance Services, LLC took over Clemente, "obviously the first thing you look at is the academics--that's what you're being graded on." Next year, she said, she aims to "focus on how to improve the arts program, how to open it up to more kids."

David Greco, co-founder and executive director of Arte, said he'd love to expand the program to serve more kids. Right now, Arte runs the arts program in four city schools: Clemente, Hill Central Music Academy, Conte/West Hills and John S. Martinez. The program costs $12,000 for the full school year. The school district pays Arte to run programs in two of the schools; another is paid for by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven; the fourth, at Clemente, is sustained by Arte itself.

The money goes towards art supplies and a stipend for the teacher, Greco said.

Greco said he agrees with fellow art leaders' fears that testing is squeezing out arts education.

"That's always the concern," he said. New Haven's school district has a strong commitment to the arts, he said, but schools have not escaped the pressure of high-stakes tests.

"Testing is really important. Of course that has to be a focus. But I feel there needs to be a balance between arts and education, because arts are really important," Greco said.

He said there needs to be more funding so non-profits like his can expand these programs in the schools. The result would be higher test scores all around, he predicted.

"When a child is involved in the arts, they definitely do better in school."

A recent National Endowment for the Arts study found that "at-risk youths with a history of intensive arts experiences enjoy better academic outcomes and are more civicly engaged than disadvantaged students who largely miss out on the arts," according to Education Week.

Jailenee, Elena's classmate, said she's been learning a lot this year. A non-native English speaker, she said she has found the arts class challenging, because the students write essays about the art they make.

She said she appreciates the extra attention--both to make art and to work on her writing.

In art class, "kids are always yelling at each other and there's so many kids," she said.

The after-school program had a more relaxed vibe. Most students were there of their own volition except for one boy whose mother made him attend. Ruotolo let him play computer games for two hours. A table of 6th-graders happily chatted and played music on a cell phone while they drew.

Jailenee worked studiously and listened to the older kids joke around.

"I love this art class," she said. "It's funny. It's fun."

Will Clark, the school district's chief operating officer, said kids are getting an exposure to arts not just in Ruotolo's classroom, but across the system. He rejected arts leaders' fear that the reform drive would push arts programming to the side.

"I don't think that's the case at all. In fact the opposite is true," Clark said.

As part of the city's two-year-old school reform drive, all schools are now graded and managed differently according to how well they perform. One high-performing school, Edgewood, took the chance to enhance its arts curriculum with a visual literacy course in conjunction with the British Art Center, Clark pointed out.

Even low-performing turnarounds, which face the strongest pressure to raise test scores, have found a way to weave in the arts to the school day, Clark said. Brennan/Rogers in West Rock landed a grant for music programming, he said. And John C. Daniels, a middle-performing Tier II school, has a popular band program.

Clark added that every time a school was rebuilt under the mayor's $1.5 billion school construction initiative, the new plans included space for arts. For Davis Street School, that meant the band could move out of a "closet" and into its own proper band space.

"We have art and music in all the schools and support that heavily," Clark said. "Observing across the board, you do see a considerable infusion of arts--it's part of the fabric of the school."

Clark added that as the district has partnerships with many local arts groups, including Yale School of Music, Yale Drama School, the Neighborhood Music School, and Artspace. The partnerships pop up on a school-by-school basis.

"New Haven is a very rich arts community, and I've found that the leaders in that community are very excited to cooperate and lend their expertise and support in the schools and collaborate with the schools to figure out what best can be done," Clark said.

Expanding arts programs like the one at Clemente "is absolutely something to look at," Clark said. "With budget shortfalls and flat-funding over the years, these partnerships are [essential ] to keep these projects going."