These days, given the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation for lessons in hardcore basics, it seems the only important "arts" skill for elementary kids is to fill in ovals attractively.
"[The arts] are marginalized," says city schools Elementary Director Richard Mascari. Pittsburgh Public Schools hopes to remedy this at the new Homewood Elementary School -- replacing the smaller Belmar and Regent Square schools nearby -- by developing an "arts infused" curriculum. More ambitiously, they hope to raise academic achievement at the same time. Many of the students who will attend the new school have scored below "proficient" on the state's standardized tests.
Earlier this spring, the board approved a proposal to hire Attack Theatre dancer, choreographer and producer Michele de la Reza to develop the arts-infused curriculum over the summer -- although they are asking that she not speak to the press about the program just yet.
Despite its specialized flavor, the school won't be a citywide magnet school, says Mascari: It's intended to "serve the whole Homewood community" first. "There's always been sort of an arts and music history in the area," he says, adding that the community has reacted enthusiastically. Nor is the school intended to be an "arts school" per se. "They're elementary kids, after all," Mascari says. "It'll be more of an interdisciplinary arts exposure. Each kid would get some experience in all the activities," including visual arts, dance, music and theater, among other topics, with more intensive arts instruction before and after school for kids who are interested.
Mascari says kids can do better in "regular" academic skills thanks to the arts. More importantly, he's tried this approach himself as principal at Banksville Elementary. "In my experience, the kids were more focused. It reaches out to kids who have not always found success in core subjects. If they have success in an art, it builds their confidence. They're able to attack higher-order thinking, when they get to something hard they don't give up. And the discipline from rehearsals and such carries over, too."
Homewood's school-board rep Randall Taylor hopes the enhanced curriculum will attract nearby students from all racial and economic backgrounds. "I don't want to create another segregated school in the East End," he told the board recently.
In fact, creating any new school is exceedingly rare. The new Homewood is the first new elementary school built in the city in over 30 years -- the last one was 1973's Martin Luther King Elementary on the North Side.