Each year, as we conduct the site visits to our America’s Best Urban Schools award finalist schools, we look for evidence of excellence in three critical areas – curricula, instruction, and school climate. We spend the day of the visit observing teaching and learning, sitting in on teacher collaboration meetings and other school events, and talking to teachers, students, parents, and administrators to identify the degree to which each school provides all students access to challenging curricula, delivers engaging instruction that leads students to mastery, and promotes a positive school climate grounded in strong relationships and a shared a commitment to ongoing improvement. As a result, we gain a deeper understanding of just what it is that these very successful urban schools do to achieve excellence and equity for their students.
Our visit teams understand the significance of this task. We know we have only one day to gather the evidence we need to make decisions about who will be our award recipients. We also know that these visits are high stakes for the finalist schools. So, we do our best to ensure that each finalist school receives our full attention during the site visit by getting into every classroom to observe, conducting multiple interviews and focus groups, heading out with the kids for recess, listening to a choir rehearsal, having lunch with students in the cafeteria, or perusing the hallway walls and display cases for other indicators of student life.
Yet, every year, amidst the hectic pace of visit season, something stands out for me. Sometimes it’s a lesson delivered so expertly that no question remains as to why the students in this school are achieving at such high levels. Other times, it’s a principal’s courage in the face of resistance to change a long-held policy that is impeding equity. And, still other times, it’s a comment by a high school student who explains that her teachers believed in her even when she doesn’t believe in herself.
But, this year, the standout for me is the arts. So often, in schools that struggle to achieve excellence, we find that music, art, drama, and other expressive endeavors take a back seat to reading, mathematics, and other tested subjects. Whether the result of funding issues or the practice of pulling students from these classes for additional academic support, when we deny students access to all aspects of a rich curriculum, including the arts, equity is at risk.
In urban schools that achieve excellence and equity, the arts play a critical role in the educational experience. Consequently, in these schools, teachers and principals find ways to ensure that all students have rich opportunities to learn about and express themselves creatively. That promise was alive and well in all five of the schools I visited this year.
In one elementary school, the music teacher used Bob Seeger’s song, “If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus,” as the focus of his lesson, engaging his upper-grade students in a discussion of the civil rights movement. He shared pictures of the 60s to provide students the historical background and then introduced the students to the lyrics, played a recording of the song, and had them sing along. As I left the room, he had transitioned the students to journaling about their reactions to the song and what they had learned.
At a secondary school, student musicians played in conjunto (an accordion-based band) or mariachi bands, expressing pride in their Mexican heritage. Students in another elementary school were busy preparing their entries for an art show and learning to play the ukulele. Dr. Seuss-themed art adorned the hallways of several schools celebrating the author’s birthday. Impressed by the quality and quantity of the artwork, I asked about the art teacher. To my surprise, I was told there was no art teacher – the classroom teachers have taken on the task. And across schools, where the daily schedule couldn’t accommodate dance or drama, the after-school program did, along with piano, recorder, choir, broadcasting, chess, and other offerings – all staffed voluntarily (and without pay) by the classroom teachers.
So here’s to the arts in urban education, and here’s to our 2018 America’s Best Urban schools award finalists for hosting our visits, welcoming us into your schools, and enriching your students’ lives through the pursuit of the creative arts!
Lynne G. Perez, Ph.D.
NCUST Deputy Director