One School’s Journey The Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) will soon begin its 10th year. The journey to this moment has been remarkable in every way, certainly one to note and celebrate. Historically our diverse school was among the highest poverty schools in Burlington and had the poorest student achievement scores in the district. Change was necessary, but as most educators know, change is not easy. However, when the arts focus was firmly in place and strongly supported by the administration, change happened. This is the story of our failing public elementary school and the impact arts integration had on our educational success.
The conversation for school improvement began in 2008 with robust discourse within the Burlington School District and larger community. Passionate exchanges about how best to balance the socio-economic inequities within the district were explored. One that was heartily welcomed was a focus on learning through the arts, resulting in a magnet school that could attract children from across the district and provide them with a hands-on learning experience with the arts at the center. Not only do the arts cross cultural boundaries, but research provides plenty of evidence that an arts rich environment prepares students to be responsible, involved citizens who creatively solve problems. The vision was created and the IAA was launched. We embrace and maintain the belief that arts integration as a research based curricular strategy can have a profoundly positive affect on student achievement.
At the IAA, we define arts integration as the blend of one arts discipline (visual arts, dance, drama and music) and another academic subject (math, science, language arts, social studies), in which both disciplines lean on and support one another, deepening the learning for our students. This definition is our guide and touchstone. Arts enhancement and arts as curriculum are also valued, but the integration of the arts is the crux of our mission. Over the past nine years, professional development opportunities have raised teacher confidence and skill at using AI techniques. We created systems within our school that allow for the creation of carefully planned AI units that follow state and national learning standards. These systems include a block schedule with integrated arts classes, planning templates that help shape our units, arts integration rubrics that keep us sharp and aligned, and time (though never enough) where we (teachers and art specialists) can collaborate and work together. We bring in nationally and locally trained teaching artists to model excellence in arts integration. We visit outstanding schools that lead us further on our journey. We foster meaningful relationships with community partners that help us provide a rich integrated arts curriculum for our diverse group of learners, offering our students far more than we could hope to provide with a shrinking school budget. We expanded our programing to include a breadth of arts opportunities for our students: a drama program, strings program, and dance program to name a few. We increased our arts staff to include full time arts specialists, including a drama educator. We created a vigorous artist-inresidence program, calling in experts and professionals throughout the arts to help guide us in our learning opportunities. And we rely on each other- as partners, as educators, as artists, as change makers. All of this has taken time, one baby step after another. Slowly we have evolved.
We have learned a lot over the past nine years. Not all of it has been easy. We have had both failure and success, and have used our failures to push forward. School reform is difficult, but with a dedicated, devoted staff and administration, we believe it is possible to flourish. Our population has increased significantly and is now socioeconomically balanced to match the district average; our students and their families are deeply engaged with our school community; our school has been recognized by the Vermont Agency of Education as a top turnaround school in Vermont. We know that our devotion and commitment to learning through the arts is at the heart of this success. Arts Integration as an agent for school reform cannot be underestimated.
Judy Klima is the Arts Coach at the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington, VT.