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1/20/2005

News > News

IT'S THE ARTS, STUPID

 

Morris Sorin, the principal and director of the New School of Orlando Prep, walks excitedly through a sea of empty, miniature desks and chairs. His wide eyes are animated behind his thick glasses, and his smile never fades.

"Since we did so much last night, today is a fluff day," Sorin says as his pace quickens. "There will probably be lots of absences after last night's Winter Fest."

Some might consider it odd for a school principal to talk about "fluff days" with a smile on his face. But Sorin isn't an average principal, and the New School of Orlando isn't an average school. This is a place that emphasizes learning via the arts, adhering to the philosophy that music, dancing, painting and drama help kids perform better in the classroom. That's about 180 degrees from where most public schools, including Orange County, find themselves in the era of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Preparation for standardized testing is the mantra nowadays. The federal government holds public schools accountable by grading the schools' performance according to their FCAT scores. Orange County had three failing schools in 2004.

What's it like to go to school at a place where the FCAT isn't the Holy Grail, and art isn't considered a waste of time? Let's take a tour of the New School and find out.

BUILDING BRAINS

The facilities at the New School are modest. Class sizes are small, with a student body of only 130, from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, meaning it meets or exceeds FCIS standards for elementary and secondary nonpublic education. Tuition is $8,200 per year.

Sorin himself spent years in Ohio's public schools as a teacher, assistant principal, curriculum director and a superintendent, but decided it was time to stop following the crowd. The New School website says Sorin received his master's degree in curriculum design and educational administration from Case Western Reserve University, and has founded three schools during his career: the Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto, the Phoenix Center for Education in Arizona and the New School of Orlando on East Marks Street near downtown.

"We looked at the research, and the research shows that students that had a broad-based background in all areas achieved higher," says Sorin. "We really wanted to develop renaissance students, which means students that are able to go to a concert and listen to classical or jazz, or get up on stage and sing beautifully. We want them to be able to enjoy life, and to go to the theater."

Sorin believes there's a correlation between the arts and gifted children. "For whatever the reason, when gifted children are born, they are really given the freedom to do almost anything. I'm talking about truly gifted children. That means they could learn how to sing, dance or be a musician or an artist. And what do they do? They get As," he says.

Mary Palmer, coordinator of graduate studies in music education at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and an expert on music and child development, says a focus on arts is essential for development.

"For many students, the arts are the key to learning," she says. "In addition, for many, the arts are the motivating factor which keeps them in school. Neurological research has indicated that studying the arts, particularly music, actually 'builds brains.'"

Sorin walks out of a classroom's side door and makes the short trek toward a light bluish-gray building across the road.

"We have an extremely unusual staff," he says along the way. "It takes about a year to really train these teachers to work here."

Teaching at the New School is a highly sought-after position for area educators. Sorin says he received more than 60 job applications last year, and with only 15 teaching slots available, there is rarely enough room to do much hiring.

The teachers are schooled in Multiple Intelligences theory, created by Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. MI theory focuses on strengthening musical, bodily, logical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences.

Teachers at the New School don't simply assign homework and give tests. They teach by doing. Greek theater is taught by producing plays in class, Italian by singing operas.

That methodology is behind the school's high percentage of gifted graduates, says Sorin. He estimates that 25 percent of the kids who graduate from New School could qualify for Mensa, which means they would score in the top 2 percent of the general population on a standardized intelligence test. However, since the school's population is too small for formal statistic-keeping, there's no hard evidence for his assertion.

There is evidence to support the idea that arts make you smart. In the August 2004 issue of the American Psychological Society journal, Psychological Science, scientists at the University of Toronto conducted a study that supported the concept that music lessons improve intellect. A group of 144 6-year-olds were randomly assigned different tasks for the yearlong study: keyboard lessons, drama lessons, singing lessons or no lessons at all. Researchers found that students taking keyboard or voice lessons had larger IQ increases after their studies than the children who took drama lessons or none at all.

According to a Newsday article, "Awaken your Einstein: What makes kids smart?", researchers found that college board statistics from the 2002 SATs showed that music students scored over 40 points higher on the math portion of the test, and earned significantly higher verbal scores.

SOUND OF MUSIC

Sorin walks up a blue wooden ramp leading to the music room, and can hardly contain his excitement as he swings open the door. Inside, dozens of children are sitting in a circle, belting out show tunes in perfect harmony. When the children see Sorin, their singing gets louder and more confident.

"We just got permission to do Les Miserables in March," he whispers, trying not to disrupt the singing. "We had to get special permission from New York to do this, which is not an easy thing to do."

A young blond girl stands up and the piano teacher begins keying a melancholy tune from Les Miserables. Her face wears the mature sadness she sings about. Everyone listens:

I dreamed a dream of days gone by
When hopes were high and life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …

"She has the most beautiful voice," Sorin leans over and whispers. "She never sang until she got here, and now she's phenomenal."

After listening to three more songs, Sorin leaves the children and meanders through different classrooms. He walks down a long hallway into a room with drawings covering the walls.

"This is where our children sit to draw," he says, and stops to look at a row of pastel rose-petal drawings. His eyes light up as if he's about to reveal a secret. "This is our first-grade art studio," he says proudly, pointing to pictures that look as if they belong in a high-school art studio. "We tell them, 'You can draw any way you want after you know what it is to draw.' That way they are making choices out of knowledge, not out of ignorance," he says.

Ten minutes later, he enters another art studio, walks over to a plastic bin full of laminated drawings and holds up a handful of colorful peacock drawings. "The Winter Park Art Festival had a school contest, and the students were supposed to draw the festival's logo, which was a peacock." He holds up three different pictures and smiles. "We won first place, second place and an honorable mention." Delight overwhelms him as he gazes fondly at the drawings. "I think I get more excited about these things than the children who actually won!"

He walks out of the building and passes the music room again where children can still be heard singing.

"Most of our kids start out in public school. They didn't want to go to school then. Here, they don't want to go home. They think they're at camp."

NO ARTS LEFT

UCF music professor Palmer has trained many OCPS music instructors. She says Orange County's art programs are feeling the effects of No Child Left Behind.

"Inevitably, the pressures [of federal accountability] have led to some cuts in both time and space for arts instruction," says Palmer. "The recent study of the status of arts education in Orange County underscored the inequitable access to arts education in schools across the county – i.e., some schools, especially due to their smaller size, have more time for quality arts instruction with specialist teachers."

She adds, "The accountability system … causes some arts teachers to spend some instructional time specifically teaching reading and other skills, instead of teaching the arts."

Tim Shea, chairman of the school board for Orange County Public Schools, says this type of problem is unavoidable under federal mandates. "The New School is not required by law to take the FCAT like the public schools are. So they're free to have flexibility with their curriculum," says Shea. "However, I would like to see more of an emphasis on drawing and visual arts [in the public schools.] Unfortunately, a lot of schools are tied to their budgets. For example, if a school is in need of a reading specialist, they may not have enough money for an art teacher."

Carolyn Minear, the director of fine arts for OCPS, agrees. "I think it's safe to say that there is less money available for arts programs today than there was five years ago," she says. "It's an unintended consequence [of No Child Left Behind]. If you spend more time and money on one thing, you'll obviously have less time and money to spend on other things."

There's no way to know how much Orange County schools spend now versus how much they spent before NCLB was enacted, adds Minear.

"Every school is doing it differently. It's up to each school's principal [to allocate money toward their own arts programs.] But we're all intent on the children having a healthy exposure to the arts." She pauses for a moment. "It's the 'how' that we're having issues with."

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