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Philadelphia Administrator Champions Arts Education in Student Learning

By guest blogger Caralee Adams

General George G. Meade School in Philadelphia is located in a harsh, urban neighborhood where many students come to school from challenging home situations.  It can be hard to shift gears and be prepared to learn.

But a thriving arts program with poetry and percussion workshops, ballroom-dancing lessons, and visits from hip-hop artists helps the K-8 students connect with each other, their teachers, and the school.

"The arts for my students are like a safe haven—a way to express themselves," says Raqueebah Burch, the principal of the school.

Ten years ago, there was no music at Meade. Now there is because of the efforts of Dennis Creedon, an assistant superintendent in the Philadelphia school district.

To get a program started at Meade, Creedon offered to provide an itinerant music teacher if the school would promise to hire one the year after. He then introduced Meade to  Musicopia, a local nonprofit organization that helped bring visiting artists into the school and fill the music classroom with all sizes of xylophones, cymbals, bells, and other instruments.

Creedon's work to champion the arts and build community partnerships was highlighted in the 2014 Leaders to Learn From special report.  He is a passionate supporter of the arts in schools to help enrich the lives of children—especially those struggling with trauma.

"When arts are integrated into the classroom, it empowers kids to own the content," he says. Arts are not a "frill," contends Creedon. Rather, they should be at the center of education and embraced as a learning tool.

This week a report came out showing that 41 states have instructional requirements for arts education.

Through major cutbacks in Philadelphia, Creedon has managed to hang on to arts teachers and keep programs going. He told arts teachers to position themselves as leaders in their schools and demonstrate the value of arts in student engagement. Creedon helped secure some hefty federal grants with the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership that helped fund arts instruction that is woven into literacy and math instruction.

At General George A. McCall School, teachers used that grant money to integrate arts into classroom instruction in other subjects. For instance in math, students sew quilt pieces as they learn about geometry.

"Art gives them an access point to the curriculum in ways traditional teaching cannot do," says McCall 4th grade teacher Meghan Merlini. It's especially effective in teaching math terms in her class, which has a high concentration of Chinese-speaking students, she said.

Arts are infused into literacy instruction. Leslie Greenberg, an 8th grade literacy teacher, has her students write an essay describing a landscape and then swap papers and try to draw that landscape based on the text. "Anytime a project has an art component, the students run with it," she says.

Read more about the 13 other innovative educators and administrators profiled this year in Leaders to Learn From. They will be recognized next week in Washington at a series of special events convened by Education Week.

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