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Arts education: A look at how Michigan's schools teach music, drama, painting and more
By: Brian Smith
December 23, 2013

LANSING -- From parents funding elementary art classes out of their own pockets, to a school district with more than 100 art and music teachers, to urban charter schools specializing in the arts, Michigan's arts education landscape is as varied as its geography.

Over the next week, online and in print, MLive will take a look at how schools across the state teach the arts, focusing on how districts have cut, maintained or brought back classes through hard budget choices and generous fundraising.

The state's educational guidelines call for students from kindergarten through high school to learn about dance, visual art, music and theater, and the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires students to complete one course in "visual, performing or applied arts" in order to graduate and receive a high school diploma.

That graduation requirement, coupled with budget pressures facing districts across the state, has often put elementary and middle school arts programs on the chopping block.

"The benefits of arts ed at early ages and throughout K-12 learning are invaluable," Joni Starr, a Michigan State University education professor said. "It’s more than important, it’s a vital part of who we are as individuals."

Starr said arts education helps younger children to develop communication skills and encourages students to consider other perspectives while learning, but often loses out in funding crunches because districts often focus on mathematics, English and other subjects included on standardized tests.

The focus on high-stakes standardized testing has weighed on decisions about arts coverage across the country. A 2009 study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, a non-profit group focusing on education issues, said "arts education remains at best a stepchild in the curriculum and sometimes requires extraordinary efforts just to be kept in the family," and cited increased testing as a reason arts education is often reduced.

The study, produced by the RAND Corporation, concluded that arts education programs are "fragile, vulnerable not only to policy and political changes, but also to blows such as test-based assessments of non-arts subjects and the related lack of time and space in the school day for other than tested subjects."

As Michigan and the nation move toward new assessments for students and a teacher evaluation system tied to student performance, the pressure on arts education is likely to increase.

Here's the varied picture MLive reporters find as they talk to school districts around the state:

• Budget cuts forced the Lansing School District to eliminate arts classes for elementary students, instead relying on uncertified instructors to help classroom teachers provide lessons on music and art. The district is also starting a program in two schools to combine arts education with science and mathematics through a $4 million federal grant.

• Budget cuts have also reduced arts offerings in Jackson, Flint and Detroit, but through the work of parents and community donors, students still have some access to visual arts and music classes. In Jackson, parents at one elementary school have raised money to hire an art teacher at their own expense, while outside groups in Flint and Detroit provide both educational programs and funding for classroom instruction.

• In other areas, arts education is a priority even in the face of budget cuts, with Ann Arbor Public Schools offering a wide variety of classes and employing the equivalent of more than 100 full-time arts teachers. In Saginaw, Muskegon and Grand Rapids, arts-focused charter schools are giving students the ability to focus on their talents.

• In Kalamazoo, a partnership between school districts across the county is offering dance, theater and media production classes to students who otherwise would not be able to take those courses because of budget constraints. Expansion has drawn more than 500 students into the program, which now offers evening and weekend classes.

Brian Smith is the statewide education and courts reporter for MLive. Email him at or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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