In the same way there are food deserts in certain corners of bustling cities, there are also areas devoid of art opportunities for young people.
Planting the seeds of creativity in these art deserts in Denver is what A+ Denver says it aims to do through a task force on quality arts in Denver Public Schools. The nonprofit school reform outfit on Thursday released a draft report on the state of arts education in DPS, believed to be the first of its kind.
“It is meant to be a snapshot of what is currently in DPS in terms of arts education, and a description of why arts education is so important,” said Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Denver. “You’ll find the recommendations are purposefully blank at this point. We wanted to share the report with A+ members and the public to get ideas, thoughts and feedback.”
A+ Denver researchers uncovered pockets of greatness – most notably, Denver School of the Arts – but they also found areas where students have few opportunities to learn traditional fine arts, such as painting, sculpture, architecture and music, or modern fine arts like film, photography, design, literary arts and culinary arts.
And, when DSA’s enrollment was closely examined, few students from high-poverty areas won coveted spots at the school during its “blind auditions” process. Last year, 1,103 students applied for 213 spots at DSA. The school has not consistently admitted DPS students from a single school west of I-25 for at least the past three years, the report found.
“It’s really challenging to find kids in Denver who play violin or cello well enough to get into DSA,” Schoales said. “One of the reasons for that is that there isn’t a DPS elementary school that has a music program that isn’t dependent on parents providing instruments or paying for lessons. I was somewhat shocked by how dramatic some of the data was.”
The report found these weaknesses in DPS’ artistic course offerings:
- Spread thin – some breadth and little depth
- Inequality of access to strong programs
- Few clear pipelines for students studying the arts or a specific artistic discipline
- Under-utilization of Denver’s arts community to assist in schools
- Few measures of quality of arts instruction
Schoales said studies have proven the value of artistic endeavors on a person’s life and future success.
“We believe that providing a systemwide high-quality arts education supports academic achievement and attainment and contributes to overall student success,” states the report, titled Arts Education in Denver: Envisioning Excellence.
Arts in DPS lack benchmarks
The document laments the fact that DPS has few, if any, explicit goals, benchmarks or measurements when it comes to arts instruction.
For instance, researchers found that Denver only requires 10 semester hours of the arts for high school graduation, which can be satisfied by taking arts or career and technical education. Researchers also found instances of teachers with arts credentials being hired to teach non-related subjects, such as gym and history.
DPS elementary students should be receiving a minimum of two hours of arts instruction per week, the report states, based on current district funding and policy.
But, “In practice, there is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest students are not always getting this level of arts instruction,” the report stated.
The report also found that Denver spends $256 per pupil on arts instruction. In 2008, SRI, a nonprofit research group based in California, looked at arts spending at 10 exemplary schools in Minnesota, Kentucky, Massachusetts and New Jersey. It determined that most “exemplar” schools spend between $150 and $350 per pupil on arts teachers’ salaries.
The A+ report is calling for closer scrutiny of what students in DPS are learning in art through the use of end-of-the-year portfolios or other measures, such as differentiated diplomas.
Growth in state’s creative industries
According to the report, Colorado’s economy is increasingly driven by creative industries.
A 2008 Creative Industries report found employment in the state’s creative economy increased by more than 8,000 jobs, or 7 percent, compared to a 6 percent growth in creative enterprise employment in the U.S. from 2002 to 2007.
Yet fewer than 1 percent of total DPS graduates going to college in-state appear to be majoring in design-related fields. In 2011, about 4.4 percent of DPS public school graduates who went on to college in state declared majors in the arts, compared to 8 percent from Denver private schools.
That isn’t to say some Denver schools aren’t stepping up to the plate. The report singles out schools with strong arts focuses, including Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Smith Renaissance School and the Cole Arts and Science Academy.
Other schools – such as Odyssey, Brown, McMeen, Montclair, Steck, Steele, Lincoln, Cory and Polaris – also have strong reputations for their arts programs, the report found.
Meanwhile, CEC Middle College has programs driven by the creative industries. And, over the past two years, East High School, traditionally recognized for its film program, has tripled the number of students taking its Advanced Placement studio art class. Almost a third of East arts students are pursuing art at the college level.
Schoales said A+ Denver’s goal is to come up with a set of recommendations in coming weeks to boost the arts in the rest of the 80,000-student district.