Teaching the arts in Philadelphia: five schools, five stories
Interviews by Clarisse Mesa and Benjamin Herold
Philadelphia’s 268 schools include selective high schools requiring auditions that regularly turn out professional artists and also schools without even a part-time art or music teacher – with no formal course offerings in the arts. No matter where a school falls on that spectrum, there are likely to be teachers committed to offering quality arts instruction and arts experiences to their students. Here are five examples of teachers who pursue arts education in a variety of ways at a variety of schools across the city.
Title/position: Vocal Department Chair, Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP); music theory teacher; choir conductor.
Experience: 30 years, 25 at GAMP.
Availability of the arts at GAMP: GAMP is a college-preparatory, selective admission magnet school with a required music theory and choral curriculum. All students take music theory and perform in the school choir. They may also take instrumental music lessons. Every other year, GAMP produces a musical. GAMP serves grades 5-12 with 550 students from all parts of the city. There is no art teacher at GAMP.
“We have great leadership… We don’t really do without here.” Jack Carr started GAMP 30 years ago with 55 fifth- and sixth-grade students. His vision is reflected in the GAMP mission statement: “We cannot tolerate another generation that knows so much about destroying life, but so little about enhancing it. We cannot permit our children to come into their maturity as masters of the atom and gene, yet ignorant of the ways of the human mind and heart.”
Vision of arts education: “Ideal arts education would have one period each day for some form of art. One class per week is not enough to enhance someone’s life…. Art is an outlet for our emotions—for joys and sorrows. In art, no one is segregated. Art teaches the inner connectedness of all people.”
Successes: The music staff team-teaches, and the academic staff works to integrate music into their subjects. GAMP annually produces a winter and a spring concert. They produce a musical every other year. They also perform 20-30 gigs every year—from Temple’s Music Festival to mayoral, District, and community functions. Over 90 percent of GAMP seniors attend college.
Challenges: “The same kids are in everything. The one who’s good at baseball is the same kid who sings and who plays in the orchestra. So that’s hard. Also, there are lots of students who are forced to work, and it’s hard to get them here after school. They juggle a lot, but we always say here, 'We'll find a way.' "
Photo: Benjamin Herold
Title/position: Full-time art teacher, Jay Cooke Elementary School, grades K-8. Teaches visual arts, including drawing, painting, printmaking, ceramics, and crafts.
Experience: Eight years teaching, seven at Cooke.
Availability of the arts at Cooke: Full-time art teacher with dedicated art room and kiln. Artist-in-residence program, featuring professional artist Diane Pieri, supported through an Art Partners grant from the Delphi Foundation through the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is no music teacher at Cooke.
“The main thing is that Mr. Branch, the principal, is an artist himself. He used to teach art here at Cooke, and he is a big advocate for the arts. He provides any supplies I need, and he will write grants to bring in extra resources.”
Vision of arts education: “I was a lead writer for the District’s middle school core curriculum. I emphasize group projects. I’ve always focused on group public art projects with my eighth grade students. It helps to improve the appearance of the school, connect students with art in the community, and give the students more ownership of what they make. I want the kids’ arts experiences here to be both positive and memorable.”