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Education

Two Kansas Schools Implement A+ Program, Emphasize The Arts

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Sean Sandefur
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An educational program that originated in North Carolina twenty years ago has now made its way to Kansas. Cheney High School and Hiawatha Elementary will be the first schools in the state to implement the A+ Program, which integrates the arts into subjects such as math and history. KMUW's Sean Sandefur reports...

About two dozen teachers from Hiawatha Elementary School in northeast Kansas are having a lot of fun, which is strange, considering this is a three-day professional development seminar during their summer recess. 

Filling a large conference room at Emporia State University, these teachers have had about 10 minutes to view the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. The teachers’ jobs are to now reenact this scene from memory, using only their bodies.

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Credit Sean Sandefur
Hiawatha Elementary School teachers reenact the famous painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware

Some of the teachers are pretending to be boats; others are pretending to be soldiers. Sonya Ferguson is helping coordinate this activity. She’s a teacher from Oklahoma, and she taught in a school that adopted the A+ model in 2002. She now travels to different states to help other schools implement the program.

“We've realized there are multiple ways to learn, and that assessment doesn’t always have to be paperwork,” Ferguson says.

As the teachers finish the activity, she explains that this sort of reenactment could be used from preschool to high school, replacing more traditional pop quizzes.

For younger students, they could be asked to simply identify America's first president; for older students, they could tell the story behind the painting’s subject matter. The emphasis with A+ is that learning can happen outside of a textbook—and it can be more effective. The A+ Schools Program has about 20 years of proof that it works.

“If you go back and look at what researchers have found, the students want to go to school," Ferguson says. "There’s increased attendance. Teachers are happier, and happier teachers make happier students, so it's a win-win situation for everyone."

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Credit Sean Sandefur
Large bugs made out of clay. Hiawatha Elementary School teachers created these not for art class, but for science class. They were required to identify each part of the bug as they made them

The A+ program was started in North Carolina in 1995. It was initially a research project put on by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and it remains pretty rare, with about 140 participating schools across the country. It was brought to both Oklahoma and Kansas through statewide art councils. Sandra Kent, executive director of Oklahoma’s A+ Schools, is overseeing the program’s transition into Kansas.

“It's beyond just, ‘We wrote a story, now let's draw a picture,'" Kent says. "It's about the fact that the arts create critical thinking. They help people to process, to think deeper. Whether it's movement, visual arts, creative writing—they give you an edge, they make you question, they make you go to a deeper level.”

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Credit Sean Sandefur
Sandra Kent, executive director of Oklahoma’s A Schools program

Kent says A+ isn’t curriculum. It doesn’t have specific goals, huge textbooks or standardized tests. Both Hiawatha Elementary and Cheney High School will still have to meet Common Core standards. But she says A+ allows students to meet those same outcomes, but with a different approach.

“Things like line and shape and shading, how does that fit into math? How does that fit into social studies? What was the music during times of war?

"It just brings a complete aspect that gets students and adults excited and more engaged," Kent says. "It sounds abstract, but somehow it makes it more concrete. The learning is more real.”

Think for a second about your ABCs: Most kids learn these 26 letters through a simple melody, and many adults still rely on this song to alphabetize. In an A+ School in North Carolina, they’re using this same memorization theory for more complex learning, like how rain is made.

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Credit http://www.okaplus.org/

Kent says the results of A+ speak for themselves. In Oklahoma, A+ schools are seeing less absenteeism and higher standardized test scores compared to both the state average and schools in their own district.

But it isn’t so much about measuring data, but putting creativity back into the classroom.

Kate Miller, an art teacher, and Heidi Diller, a music teacher, both advocated for the A+ program to come to Hiawatha. Diller says elementary students go to both music class and art class two to three times a week. She hopes both music and art can play a bigger role in a student’s other classes.

“That’s something Hiawatha Elementary has been trying to do for the last couple years. Katie and I have worked together to bring an overall sense of community, and this program seemed like a good chance for us to bring what we do as art teachers into the classroom.”

Diller doesn’t quite have an example yet of what that looks like. But she says that’s what this three day seminar is for: Getting a whole school together, pouring over lesson plans and injecting arts into everything they can.

Miller says A+ can be a more natural way of learning, versus long chapters in textbooks, or lectures.

“With the arts—especially in an elementary age—it's a less scary subject," Miller says. "Kids just naturally gravitate to it—they haven't gotten into the mindset that they can't do it. So, when they're coming against a hard math problem or a hard science question and they're not sure what to do, they can use those art connections and feel more at ease.”

The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission and the Kansas Alliance for the Arts are to thank for A+ coming to the state.

There were three schools across Kansas that applied for the program, and each school had to have approval by 85 percent of its teachers.

Hiawatha Elementary and Cheney High School were the last standing. Their training is being covered by a state grant, and the schools say the program doesn’t cost much once it’s implemented. They hope to be a model for the rest of Kansas and that A+ spreads statewide.

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Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur