Justise Johnson, 7, center, sings a spanish song with her classmates during a second-grade talented and gifted dual-language STEM class at Capitol Heights Elementary in Prince George’s County. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The third-graders at Capitol Heights Elementary School are showing what they have learned about ancient Chinese dynasties, but there is no conventional quiz. They are gathered in small groups writing song lyrics — testing ideas, rhyming words, adding details, singing to each other.

Some perform for the class.

“The wall of China is a wall that protects us from bad guys,” one girl sings, as teacher Tifany Champouillon listens for the lesson’s main ideas.

The creative buzz in Room 19 is increasingly common in the school as Prince George’s County expands an initiative to integrate the arts into teaching and learning. Started last year in 15 schools, the growing effort now includes 41 schools in Maryland’s second- largest school system. Those involved say they use art in many forms across the curriculum as a way to make content more meaningful and deepen student learning.

The new strategy comes as interest in arts integration is growing nationally, driven in part by increasing research that points to academic, social and personal benefits for students, said Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership, a network of more than 100 arts, education and cultural organizations. She said studies show that employing the arts in academic classrooms is associated with improvement in test scores in math and English. In particular, students living in poverty benefit from the integrated approach, she said.

Jose Espinoza-Morales, 7, learns about weather in spanish during his second grade talented and gifted dual-language STEM class at Capitol Heights Elementary in Prince George’s County. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“The arts also do so much more,” Ruppert said. “They engage kids in school, motivate them to learn, develop critical thinking, equip them to be creative.”

In Prince George’s, teachers incorporate dance into a science class, visual design into math learning and music into international culture and language studies. Teachers say it helps students with collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

“I would rather make songs instead of just studying it,” said Ainsley Bell, 8, working with three classmates to reflect what they learned about a long-ago emperor.

“It’s just more inspiring,” said Lavender Petty, 8.

That sort of enthusiasm is part of the goal in Prince George’s, where schools chief Kevin Maxwell says arts integration will help improve student achievement, including test scores and graduation rates, over time. The county has been among the lowest-performing systems in Maryland, and Maxwell sees arts integration as one of a number of ways to help turn that around.

Maxwell said he would like to see arts integration roll out during the next five or six years in a majority of county schools. “I think the more we do it, the better off we’re going to be, the better our results,” he said.

Maxwell, who also embraced arts integration during his tenure as superintendent in Anne Arundel County, said that a student who acts out an idea is more likely to remember it and use it. “It helps creativity, it helps innovation, it helps kids to think a little differently,” he said.

A student studies math in a fifth-grade class at Capitol Heights Elementary. The school is part of an arts integration expansion in Prince George's schools. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The effort in Prince George’s is the state’s most extensive; others using arts integration include Anne Arundel, Frederick, Washington and Wicomico counties and the city of Baltimore, said Lori Snyder, executive director of the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance. In Prince George’s, “they’re really moving in a positive direction to take it systemically through their county,” she said.

In Capitol Heights Elementary, a high-poverty school with 245 students and a dual-language program, Nina Lattimore, the principal, said the strategy already has made a difference. Teachers follow Common Core State Standards and state arts standards.

“What they are doing now is shaping instruction to meet the needs of the various learning styles of our students,” she said. For students, she added, “it’s about actually being able to speak and give life to what you learned, which is meaningful because the student now owns that. I think the difference is dramatic.”

In Lisa Taylor’s fifth-grade math class, students create designs with paper squares as they work with decimal values.

“A few of them have a hard time with the math, but the art piece allows them to see it visually,” Taylor said. “It’s more connection, an ‘a-ha’ moment for them.”

In second grade, Bridget Collins’s students work with iPads as they review first-quarter math content, making infomercials about how to tell time, count coins and regroup in addition and subtraction. “The art definitely triggers a different part of students’ minds that isn’t triggered by pencil and paper,” she said.

John Ceschini, arts integration officer for the Prince George’s school system, said he used the approach while working as a principal in Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George’s schools. In each of the three school systems, he noticed increased student engagement and parental involvement, higher morale among teachers and better scores on state tests.

“They learn things deeper,” Ceschini said. “They are actually able to get into depth with these concepts. That’s how learning sticks. If they are acting something out, if they are singing a song about a content area, that content becomes real to them.”

The budget for the Prince George’s initiative is $640,000 this school year, school officials said. Ceschini said about 100 teachers attended training over the summer.

“There are so many different ways that kids learn and express themselves,” said Jordyn Goddard, a third-grade teacher. “It really gives them the opportunity to showcase their best selves as learners.”

In a dual-language science class at the school, students did not hesitate. The lesson, led by teachers Andrea Rushing and Rafael Flaquer, was about states of matter. Third graders used dance to portray what happens when solid ice is heated — becoming liquid, then gas. Some students were molecules. Some were heat. Two were thermometers.

Fuad Adeoye, 8, liked it, saying it was a good way to learn. “My brain likes to remember fun stuff,” he said.