Budget proposal envisions more arts education in Alabama schools
by Laura Johnson
lbjohnson@annistonstar.com
Oct 19, 2012 | 4944 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Some members of Cobb Elementary’s school choir are shown practicing after school. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Some members of Cobb Elementary’s school choir are shown practicing after school. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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When first-grade teacher Susan Grimes organized 13 students for an after-hours choir at Cobb Elementary School four years ago, she couldn’t have imagined how quickly the program would grow.

Today, 94 students take part in the after-school program, which has expanded to include instruction in four areas — creative writing, drama, choir and visual arts. The program is taught by three teachers and Principal Yolanda McCants; they volunteer on Thursdays for one hour to provide Cobb students with their only source of concentrated art instruction from the public school, McCants said.

“It gives them the chance to be able to explore different arts,” Grimes said. “For so long here we weren’t able to have any programs like that.”

Like many area schools, Cobb doesn’t have the time or money to fold concentrated art instruction into regular instructional hours, so administrators there sought alternatives for exposing children to the arts. That could change for Cobb and other Alabama public schools if a proposed budget from State Superintendent Tommy Bice is approved by the State Board of Education and the Alabama Legislature.

Bice’s initial budget proposal includes $5 million in “new state funding” for arts education. If the funding is approved it will be used to expand or begin art programs in Alabama public schools, according to the Alabama Department of Education.

Specific information about how the funding would be dispersed was not available, but news of the spending proposal was enough to catch the attention of state arts in education advocates and some local school administrators. The funding is of particular importance to superintendents such as Jacksonville City Schools’ Jon Paul Campbell, whose schools lack visual art instruction.

Neither of Jacksonville’s two public schools — Kitty Stone Elementary and Jacksonville High — has a visual arts teacher. Students receive some art education through supplemental programs like the one at Cobb, but Campbell said he still wants more art for his students.

The $5 million, he hopes, will be a gateway to progress for the small school system he oversees. Not so long ago, he said, the schools had visual arts teachers.

“I feel that the arts are very important and that’s on my short list of things to add back as funds become available,” Campbell said. “We welcome any additional funding for the arts … I think we could use it very wisely to build on what we already have.”

Campbell said his system doesn’t receive enough state money to pay for art teachers. Many school systems pay such teachers with money from local tax revenue. But in Jacksonville’s case, there isn’t enough local funding to pay for certified art teachers, which would cost the system roughly $70,000.

Not all local school systems struggle to provide art education. Oxford City Schools, buoyed by loads of local sales tax revenue, is able to fund art education at all levels of instruction.

Oxford’s schools have a designated art instructor for students in kindergarten through fourth grade, middle school piano laboratories, band and choir. High school students in Oxford schools have access to photography, choir, band, theater, and visual arts including sculpture and painting, said Oxford schools Superintendent Jeff Goodwin.

The school system there has eight teachers designated specifically to hold fine arts classes. Salaries and benefits for those teachers are roughly $480,000, according to Robby Jordan, the school system’s chief financial officer.

It’s not uncommon for school systems in urbanized areas with a strong retail business presence to excel in funding arts education or, conversely, for rural systems without a large tax base to struggle to develop arts programs, said Diana Green, arts in education program manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Green develops arts programs that are designed to supplement full-time arts instruction in public schools. She said she frequents rural school systems and has noticed a disparity in arts education between rural and urban systems.

“That’s going to create an inequitable situation,” Green said. “Equal access, I think, is very important.”

At Saks Elementary School, Green is currently piloting a supplemental program that integrates arts into core curriculum.

The Saks program is designed to teach children about the different elements of storytelling, such as plot and character, through songwriting and singing. Green and Saks are partnering with a professional musician who will spend four weeks working in the school with one grade level.

Green said programs like those at Saks and Cobb work best as a supplement to full-time art instruction. But often such programs are the primary source of art instruction for students in public school.

“That would never replace what an art specialist could do,” Green said.

Green and Donna Russell, executive director of the Alabama Alliance for Arts Education, both work to further arts education in Alabama. The women said they favor having a certified art specialist — someone certified to teach visual art, music education, drama or another artistic discipline — in each public school in the state.

Though the $5 million budget proposal from Bice wouldn’t achieve that particular goal, it would be a step in the right direction, Green and Russell said.

Green said she would like to see the money, if approved, used to develop partnerships with local art organizations to offer supplemental instruction in the state’s public schools. Such relationships last through good and bad economic times, she said.

There are still many variables that could prohibit the state from providing additional funding for the arts in Alabama public schools this year. But none of those variables prohibits art advocates from hoping the money is secured.

“The hope is it will be approved at 100 percent” Russell said. “I really can’t predict, I wish I could, I am very optimistic, however.”

Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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