With budgets tightening, arts education is further squeezed
by Beandrea Davis
Already squeezed because of the pressure on schools to focus on raising students' reading and math test scores, arts and music programs in Philadelphia schools are experiencing a funding squeeze as well, as principals confront how to parcel out shrinking school budgets.
The number of District schools that do not have a vocal music teacher on staff has grown to 119 (or 44 percent of the District's 268 schools), while 109 schools (41 percent) lack an art teacher, according to an April District report. Fifty-seven Philadelphia schools - more than one out of five - have neither an art teacher nor a vocal music teacher on the payroll.
Staffing of arts and music programs is one of the many school-based budgeting decisions that schools finalize in May. Hence, it is too early to know how schools' decisions will impact those numbers next school year.
But already over the past four years, there has been an increase of 27 in the number of schools opting to do without art teachers and an increase of 36 in the number of schools without vocal music teachers. The distribution of art and music teachers in the District was examined in a 2002 Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) report.
While multiple factors play into the loss of art and music teachers, PCCY Executive Director Shelly Yanoff said recent District budget cuts are exacerbating educational inequities.
"We balance budgets on the backs of poor kids," said Yanoff. "I don't think anyone should have to choose between reading and math support and music. Those things are all basics of an education."
In April District CEO Paul Vallas announced a five percent cut in individual school "discretionary spending" for the 2006-07 academic year, totaling $8 million in reduced funds to the District's schools. This after a 30 percent cut in schools' unspent discretionary funds for the current academic year was ordered in January. Schools may use discretionary funds to add to their teacher corps and also may supplement their arts program with in-school and afterschool arts activities.
Dennis Creedon, creative and performing arts director for the District, said the recent cuts were "a shock to everyone" but said the District is making the most of the money it does have by keeping administrative staffing costs down and putting "more direct resources in the schools."
These resources include new core curriculum guides for visual arts and vocal music for grades K-12 that are slated to be implemented this fall, and an annual $500 stipend for art and music teachers to pay for supplies, instituted two years ago.
Mitigating the lack of art and music staff this year is a $500,000 artist-in-residence program for elementary and middle schools that are not staffed with certified music or art teachers. Five new instrumental music teachers were hired this year in underserved regions of the city, bringing the number districtwide to 73.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Vice President Jerry Jordan emphasized the importance of maintaining instructional time for the arts, noting that arts exposure helps children who struggle academically to stay in school and supports stable attendance rates.
"Children need to feel successful every day when they go to school," said Jordan.
Referring to the academic pressures generated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, Jordan commented, "Any kind of a cut in budgets has a tremendous impact on schools that are already being asked to do more these days."
A recently released national study by the Center on Education Policy found that 22 percent of 299 school districts surveyed said there was decreasing time for art and music during the school day, highlighting a growing national trend to narrow the curriculum in the arts and most other subjects besides language arts and math.
Despite tighter budgets and less instructional time for the arts, Creedon said Philadelphia's art and music teachers are still trying to maximize the arts instruction in schools.
"Our teachers are diehards," said Creedon. "I have teachers who did not get paid to do musicals or to do other things, and they're doing them because they believe in their children."
Hard choices at schools
But shrinking discretionary budgets force many principals to make hard choices about how to maintain a well-rounded curriculum that includes arts education.
Six years ago when Deborah Jumpp became principal at Beeber Middle School in Wynnefield, the school had just one full time art teacher and one full time music teacher. In her tenure she was able to increase the number of staff positions in these subjects, but after last year's budget cuts, the school - which has almost 1,000 students - is now back to one art teacher and one music teacher again.
Jumpp said the art and music teachers at her school had the least seniority, so when she had to cut positions, they were the first to go. The reduced art and music staffing at Beeber permits students to have art for only one marking period per year rather than the entire school year.
Still Jumpp - a 30-year veteran with the District - emphasizes the role of arts in school curricula. She noted the school does still have two part-time instrumental music teachers. These "itinerant" or traveling teachers serve 50 students. Also, the school has three choirs, one each for grades 6 through 8.
"You need everything. You need the full circle," said Jumpp.
At Meredith School - a small arts-themed K-8 school in Queen Village - the discretionary cuts mean less class time for small group arts instruction, one of the hallmarks of the school's educational program.
Meredith Principal Stuart Cooperstein said art and music are too often seen as "prep" classes that are not as important as other subjects like reading or math. But at Meredith, students have art classes a minimum of twice a week for the entire year, usually in small groups. During an art period, classes are divided in half and trade off between arts instruction and extra support in other core academic subjects.
The recent cuts mean Meredith's music, art, drama, and dance teachers will have to spend about half their time covering other teachers' prep periods, leaving less opportunity for small group instruction.
With less discretionary money in schools' operating budgets, Jumpp, Cooperstein, and other principals say they seek outside grants and community partnerships to fund art and music.
Through a series of $5,000 grants from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Beeber students have worked with artists-in-residence on several mural arts projects at the school.
Meredith has received grants from several organizations in recent years and currently partners with the nearby Fleisher Arts Memorial to offer arts to students.
"Ideally we would love to fund arts programs from the operating budget, but we're not living in an ideal world right now," said Diane Highsmith, principal of E.M. Stanton in South Philadelphia. "We're not able to find extra money anywhere."
Parents speaking up
Parents around the city are speaking up about budget cuts and their affect on arts education, say representatives from some local parent groups.
"To give children the opportunity to express themselves creatively in an art club or choir is part of providing a well-balanced education," said Karen Lash, president of Forrest Elementary's Home and School Association.
Addressing the absence of visual art during the school day, Forrest's parent group launched two afterschool arts clubs last year. The school's Home and School Association paid for the supplies, and three teachers were paid overtime through the discretionary funds that are now being scaled back districtwide.
"We're fearful [the clubs] will be taken away, and it's troubling not knowing," said Lash. "You can't do any long-range planning when you don't know what the District is going to throw at you."
Both Lash and Southwest Regional Home and School representative Marsha Brown said parents should be given the opportunity to have input into how the cuts will be implemented.
"Parents are very concerned. There are no clear guidelines of what exactly is going to be affected," said Brown.
Lash added, "Parents are trying to figure out, 'How do I change this? Is anybody listening?' "
"Parents need to be partners in these decisions," Lash said.