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Published: Monday, 2/7/2011 - Updated: 5 years ago

Toledo Public's budget ills endanger art, music, physical ed

Advocates for programs say they aid innovation


Walbridge Elementary physical education teacher Shelli Smith leads a class that involves relay racing, problem-solving, and cooperative learning. Walbridge Elementary physical education teacher Shelli Smith leads a class that involves relay racing, problem-solving, and cooperative learning.
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Toledo Public Schools hopes to develop a performing arts academy at Bowsher High School in two years, but without elementary art and music teachers will there be students for the academy? District budget slashers have those teachers on the chopping block.

Ever since public education became standard in the Western world, specialized arts instruction has felt the sting of the budget knife first -- automatically considered less necessary by some than the three 'R's.

Supporters of arts instruction in Toledo and elsewhere say it's a backward notion and the type of thinking that fosters such illogical situations as pushing for a shiny new performing arts school and at the same time slashing elementary-level arts instruction.

They point to scads of studies and recent policy revelations that position arts instruction -- and all its disciplines -- as a necessary step to developing creativity and innovation, and even as a key to future national prosperity.

On a more practical level, students who study the arts and participate in the activities have better school attendance and are more engaged, said Laura Smyth, a spokesman for the nonprofit Arts Education Partnership in Washington.

"We know that education in the arts contributes to student engagement and academic performance," she said. "There's something about being involved in the arts that makes kids want to be in school more and something about it that makes them want to be more involved in class."

Few disagree that specialized arts instruction in elementary school is good for the young students.

But TPS says it can't afford the $7 million in salary and benefits for the district's 132 elementary art, music, and physical education specialists, according to TPS leaders. In the budget proposal, the specialists are slated to be cut, along with about 200 other employees.

TPS officials resist the idea that they're eliminating arts, music, and physical education in elementary schools -- pointing out that the regular K-8 classroom instructors are trained to teach those disciplines and will make time in their regular schedules to do it.

Dawn Murphy, an Elmhurst Elementary School art specialist, said "math and art go hand-in-hand."

She and her peers have noted that art, music, and physical education are not just finger-painting, choir, and kickball anymore: The specialists say they are required to incorporate real academic lessons.

For example, elementary school art students build things. They have to measure and understand inches and feet, Ms. Murphy said.

"They don't know they're learning science and math," she said. "They'll have to find the perimeter of something. If they're going to build something, they have to know dimensions. We are required to teach them the difference between vertical and horizontal. We teach [future] architects, engineers, scientists. Without the arts, they don't think outside the box. They just read textbooks."

Delani Fuller, a Walbridge Elementary student, rolls in a relay race that requires problem solving with geometric shapes and joining in cooperative learning as well as aerobic physical activity. Delani Fuller, a Walbridge Elementary student, rolls in a relay race that requires problem solving with geometric shapes and joining in cooperative learning as well as aerobic physical activity.
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Shelli Smith, a TPS elementary physical education specialist, said she and her students incorporate aerobic exercise with math, for example.

In one drill, the students race each other as they pick up the physical pieces of a puzzle, a geometric shape, that they bring back to the team. To win, they have to be the fastest but also the quickest at figuring out how to put the shape back together.

"It's not just rolling out a ball anymore," she said. "We do a lot of problem-solving."

There's also the nation's childhood obesity problem to consider, she said.

The Walbridge Elementary School teacher said she's concerned about her well-being and also that of her colleagues who would have to try to incorporate the art, music, and physical education lessons into their regular classroom schedules.

"I'm saddened for the kids. I feel like we're going back 30 years," Ms. Smith said. "My colleagues are already busting their butts."

Ms. Smith has taught in the district for 20 years. Her sister is a TPS teacher and her father retired from the district.

"This is what we know," she said. "This is my family."

The same proposed cut was made last year when the district was forced to find $39 million in cuts or savings following a failed May levy. The district says it's reeling from the loss of students to charter and private schools. For every student who leaves, the district loses a net $5,800 in state education money.

The elementary specialists were spared last year after protests from teachers and parents, who held signs outside of public budget hearings and other school meetings. The other cuts resulted in the loss of middle and freshman sports, bus service for about 5,000 students, and about 400 employee layoffs.

The district's enrollment dipped by more than 5 percent this school year.

Now the district must find another $37 million in budget cuts, and the specialists are back on the chopping block. A series of six public hearings is scheduled for this week to discuss the budget issues and more protests are expected. A Facebook page in support of the specialists has 2,000 followers so far.

Chris Burnett, chairman of the department of arts at the University of Toledo, said policy makers often mistake the arts for an educational luxury item.

The message he wants to impart is the key role the arts play in the overall cognitive development of students, he said.

"The arts are not a recreational activity only to be supported in times of affluence," he said.

"There have been very good, definitive studies about how the arts help develop the physical growth of the brain, creating neural connections across the brain's hemispheres. It's not just a recreational output."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com or 419-724-6134

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