The art teacher at Greenbelt Elementary School is on a rotation, spreading his time among three other schools in Prince George’s County.
To Ingrid Hass, a parent of two students at Greenbelt, the schedule is unacceptable, for the teacher and especially the students.
“That means [the art teacher] doesn’t even know any children’s names,” Hass told the school board during a recent budget hearing. Hass said she questions what students gain from such a limited exposure to the arts.
Prince George’s schools chief Kevin Maxwell said he has been wondering the same thing.
As he tours schools in the district to assess their needs, one issue that has struck him is the limited number of hours of art instruction students receive, Maxwell said. Some students in the county have art class once every nine weeks, he said.
“I don’t think that’s enough,” Maxwell said during a recent interview. “It’s not that what they are getting isn’t good, but it’s not getting across what we’d like to get across.”
Prince George’s, like many districts across the country, cut back on art education programs in 2009 because of budget squeezes and a push to place greater emphasis on reading and math.
In a survey of arts education, the U.S. Department of Education found that 43 percent of full-time visual arts specialists taught at more than one elementary school in 2009-10. The majority of respondents said students received art instruction once a week, unlike in Prince George’s.
“High-quality arts education is absolutely critical to providing all students with a world-class education,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech when the survey was released. “The study of the arts can significantly boost student achievement, reduce discipline problems, and increase the odds that students will go on to graduate from college.”
Prince George’s has two magnet programs for the arts: one at Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts School for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, the other at Suitland High School’s Center for the Visual and Performing Arts.
That leaves thousands of others with limited arts instruction.
Dorothy Clowers, the principal at William Paca Elementary School in Landover, said her art teacher “works so hard,” but the students only see her “once in a blue moon.”
“The students are so happy when it’s time for her to come to William Paca,” Clowers said.
The teacher comes to the school every four weeks, stays for two weeks, then moves on to her next school.
Clowers said there is an art component to classroom lesson plans, but when the art teacher comes the students have a chance to study the work of artists, draw and create.
Maxwell said that as he puts together his first budget, he is looking at restoring art programs that were scaled back during steep budget cuts that resulted in hundreds of layoffs and job eliminations. He is seeking approval from the County Council to add 10 full-time art teachers by reallocating $18 million of this year’s $1.7 billion spending plan.
Maxwell said he not only wants students to learn to create art but also wants art integrated into more lesson plans.
“It’s not enough to just teach content,” he said. “You have to teach kids to do and create. . . . It helps you to retain what you learn better.”
The arts and environmental literacy are two programs that Maxwell said he wants to improve in the county. But his plans to expand the programs already are running into opposition.
At a hearing last week, some members of the school board questioned his focus on arts and environmental literacy at the expense of reading and math programs.
“I’m not saying it’s not a priority,” said Edward Burroughs III (District 8), referring to the art program. “But we have more urgent priorities.”