On a recent morning, students in Hickman High School’s introductory drawing and painting class were working on landscape paintings. The atmosphere was relaxed, with a radio playing modern rock in the background. When they weren’t focused on their own paintings, the students moved around the room, glancing at the work of others.
The assignment required a strong contemporary focus, and the students have been studying everything from Paul Cezanne’s mountain ranges to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Western scenes for inspiration. Jane Belcher, a senior, sat at the end of one of the long tables on the perimeter of the room. Her painting depicts a forest scene and relies heavily on the color green. It also features a large orange giraffe with brown spots.
“There really isn’t a reason I have a giraffe in the middle of the painting,” Belcher says. “I just like them. ... I even have a tattoo of a giraffe.”
Just down the hall, in an art class for Advanced Placement students, Kristan Baker says she is thinking about how she wants to decorate the glass showcase that will display her work to the school this spring. Baker’s mother is a Hickman math teacher, and last year Baker used math as an inspiration for her showcase.
“I am a perfectionist, and I make several drafts of my work before I come up with a finished product,” Baker says. “I want my work to be precise and have tried to use aspects of geometry and symmetry in my showcase to reflect that.”
Belcher and Baker have chosen to go beyond the one credit hour in art or other elective that is required for graduation from Hickman. Belcher, with five arts credits, and Baker, who has three, say art is important to them. Belcher plans to be an art teacher, and Baker wants to pursue a career in art restoration.
For decades, art has been an integral part of the public education experience. The National Association of Art Education says that the study and practice of art help students attain knowledge and skills that they would not otherwise be exposed to, including a better understanding of other cultures.
Susan Cole, coordinator of state programs for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says that a background in the arts allows students to have a better comprehension of history.
“They understand better where the human race has come from and its potential of beautiful things to come,” says Cole, who recently received a Missouri Arts Council award for innovation in arts education. “The arts tie together a student’s education experience and make that student a more in-depth thinker and contributor to their world.”
But with the growing emphasis on basic skills — reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic — states and school districts around the country have had to reconsider the importance of art education. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all states to have proficiency testing. For example, the Missouri Assessment Programis designed to test learning in math, communication arts, science and social studies. Schools that fail to meet standards of student achievement two years in a row are sanctioned.
The value school districts place on arts education is sometimes reflected in whether such programs survive cuts in education budgets. Districts that are suffering financially often have no option but to curtail art education, while others have sought to maintain it by making art a requirement for graduation.
“I think art has been encouraged in many ways,” says Tom Hatfield, executive director of the National Association of Art Education. “However, No Child Left Behind puts a damper on funding. It has been (hard) on state and local districts. Although art is included in No Child Left Behind, it is still not getting much attention.”
In Columbia, however, art education seems to be thriving. Although faced with budget cuts, the Columbia Public School District has managed to maintain art education in kindergarten through twelfth grades. Through fifth grade, students have two 30-minute sessions for art and two 30-minute sessions for music each week. Students in grades six through 12 can choose among 75 classes in art, drama and music.
“In my experience in Columbia, people celebrate the arts,” says Sharyn Hyatt-Wade, a Rock Bridge High School art teacher . “I keep waiting for a class to be cut, but it hasn’t.”
Martin Hook, director of fine arts for Columbia schools, works with teachers on the local art curriculum. Hook meets once a week with a committee of elementary school art teachers, and he also meets regularly with junior and senior high school teachers.
“We try to take a hands-on group approach when making decisions about art curriculum,” Hook says. “We want the art teachers to feel they have input.”
Experience opens opportunities
Just as importantly, student achievement in the arts is openly celebrated. The district routinely displays student art at the Columbia Board of Education building, at 1818 W. Worley St.
“There is a correlation between art and good grades,” says Jack Jensen, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary education. “We have had tough budget years, but when it comes to cutting out electives like art education, that has never really been an option.”
Cheryl J. Cozette, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, says that students have “multiple intelligences” that should be encouraged and explored.
“Some students’ gifts and talents are in the arts,” Cozette says. “We want to give students the opportunity to develop those talents.”
Hickman has so many options that Derek Prater, a junior who wants to be a cartoonist, had trouble deciding which art class to take next year. Prater, who is currently taking an introductory course in drawing and painting, decided on ceramics.
“I have taken two art classes so far,” he says. “I took a class where we worked with ceramics, but I also like drawing and painting.”
More than 30 states have made it mandatory for students to complete an “exit credit” before graduating from high school. In many cases, this requirement can be filled by taking a course in the arts.
“In 1983 only a couple of states had this requirement,” Hatfield says. “Missouri was one of the first. Throughout the years, there has been slow but steady growth everywhere else.”
At least half a dozen states require students to take an art course to gain entrance to the state’s colleges, Hatfield says.
Some states are working to save or expand art education in the face of budget cuts. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is the chairman of the Education Commission of the States, is leading an initiative to further arts education in his state. Huckabee’s spokesman, Jim Harris, says the governor has fought proposed cuts in art education. Harris says that at a recent event at a high school in Little Rock, Ark., Huckabee asked a student what he wanted to pursue as a career.
“The student replied that he wanted to be an architect,” Harris says. “The student said that he had taken a drawing class earlier in his high school career and realized that he had a talent for drawing.”
Parents have also let it be known that they value art education for their children. The president of the Missouri Parent Teacher Association, Tina Zubeck, says parents are becoming more aware that attending their child’s piano recital or hanging their artwork on the refrigerator might, in the end, lead to overall better grades . Music, creative writing and the visual arts help balance the difficulties of the math and science curriculum, she says.
“We must be careful to not let funding and testing issues cloud the importance of art education in our schools,” says Zubeck, the mother of a high school junior. “I believe that participating in the arts at school has broadened my child’s learning by helping them to relate certain concepts. You learn so much, whether it is through history, math or creative writing.”