Spokane schools are reframing priority of art, science

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As Spokane Public Schools moves ahead with changes to teaching visual arts, is it losing sight of the big picture?

That’s the worry of parents and members of the arts community, who fear the loss of art for its own sake – and much more.

Next year, elementary students in Spokane public schools will be still be painting and drawing and creating.

However, for most, their work will be framed quite differently.

The changes are driven by a tight budget, a desire for a consistent curriculum and easier transition for sixth-graders as they enter middle school.

“We are making sure that we offer a consistent, well-supported model for all elementary school students,” said Adam Swinyard, the district’s associate superintendent in charge of academics. “We’re shifting to a mode where the specific structures look similar.”

However, that the changes will mean a dilution of dedicated instruction in visual arts.

“One of the things that concerns me is that kids won’t be able to build on their visual arts, because it will be incidental to other lessons,” said Karen Mobley, a longtime advocate for the arts in Spokane.

Under the format for next year, students in all 34 elementary schools will spend the majority of their day in English, math, science and social studies, plus two 30-minute classes per week in physical education and music.

Schools were given the option to choose an additional 60 minutes per week of art or science. About two-thirds of schools chose the latter.

At those schools, kindergarten through second-graders will get the equivalent of two additional 30-minute blocks of science. Third- through fifth-graders will receive an additional hourlong weekly science class.

Sixth-graders will have a different menu, with two hourlong classes per week in one of the following: exploratory visual arts, band or strings.

At schools that chose the arts option, all students from kindergarten through fifth grade will receive one hour per week of dedicated visual arts instruction.

But for those who have the science option, the visual arts will be blended into other lessons, in the students’ homeroom. Swinyard and the district also predict a recovery in overall instructional time, as fewer minutes will be spent in the hallways.

However, art advocates and some parents see many problems with that approach: academic, experiential and practical.

“Art teaches creative problem-solving skills,” said Jennifer Schneider, an art teacher at First Presbyterian School in Spokane. “In addition to motor skills, it develops problem-solving, language skills, social skills, decision-making, risk-taking, and inventiveness.”

Schneider also serves as the committee chair for After-School Arts for the Parent-Teacher Group at Hutton Elementary School. In recent years, according to Schneider, Hutton’s Principal Chuck Demarest has had to make some tough decisions,” addressing bulging enrollment by repurposing the art classroom.

“Next year, our music teacher will be in the cafeteria space,” Schneider said of Hutton.

Meanwhile, homeroom teachers will be scrambling to incorporate art lessons into social studies, math, English and science. The changes follow a decision by the district to eliminate librarians, forcing homeroom teachers to fill another gap as it deals with layoffs and a projected budget deficit next year in excess of $21 million.

“They’re putting more burdens on the teachers,” Schneider said.

Moreover, those teachers are no more qualified at the arts than they are at library science, contends Mobley, who has worked as a consultant for arts organizations and private clients, including Spokane Arts, Spokane International Airport and several small businesses.

“Teachers are kind of expected to be miracle workers already,” said Mobley, who noted that most elementary teachers receive some visual arts training in college.

“But most are not equipped to be the kind of art teacher their students need,” Mobley said. “It’s not that they aren’t good teachers. But teaching visual arts is a set of understandings and competencies that many teachers don’t understand.”

“You think about all the things they have to know, then to develop a thoughtful lesson plan that incorporates art,” Mobley said.

Swinyard said the district will “make sure that we’re offering a well-supported model … where you’re incorporating art into math or social studies to give kids a rich and relevant experience,” but art advocates fear that lessons will be watered down.

Moreover, with the loss of art classrooms in many elementary school buildings, activities such as sculpture and larger artwork may become impractical.

“Where will they store some of those projects?” Mobley said.

However, like art itself, some of the concerns are abstract and difficult for most people to appreciate.

Said Schneider: “The scientists and computer programmers of tomorrow need to learn to harness their creativity and inventiveness in order to come up with solutions to society’s most challenging problems.”

Mobley acknowledges that most youngsters won’t realize what they’re missing until they’re adults. She noted that as fewer Americans grow up doing manual work, hospitals are finding that some surgeons lack the dexterity that once was taken for granted.

“Now they’re sending those surgeons to take sculpture lessons,” Mobley said.

Something else may be getting lost: opportunity, especially for lower-income children.

Schneider noted that the Hutton PTG has the funds to hold after-school art lessons. “But that only serves Hutton,” she said.

Like librarians, art teachers often serve as that “something special” that draws a child to school and keeps them there.

“Those are the kids I worry about,” Mobley said.

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