By Amy Wenk

Two Sandy Springs charter schools and third school seeking charter status have initiated a pilot program to incorporate arts into learning.

At an event held Oct. 21, North Springs Charter High School, Sandy Springs Middle School and Woodland Elementary Charter School celebrated their ArtsNOW program. It was the first collaboration among the schools since the middle school’s charter petition won approval from the Fulton County Board of Education on Oct. 16; if the state Board of Education agrees March 11, the middle school will begin next school year as a charter school.

“One of the stated goals of our charter is to foster a seamless transition from elementary to middle to high school in our community and to provide our students and parents with the consistency and comfort which comes from being a part of a truly community educational experience,” said Kay Walker, the principal of Sandy Springs Middle School.

ArtsNOW “provides training for teachers on how best to use the creative arts to deliver and teach curriculum objectives,” she said. “Because this training fits so well with our stated goal of improving student achievement, as well as to connect with North Springs, … this initiative became a centerpiece of our charter petition.”

A component of the nonprofit organization Creating Pride, ArtsNOW provides school systems with professional development and resources for teachers to promote creativity in the classroom.

“We need music, art, dance and drama in our schools,” said Pam Millice, associate director of Creating Pride. “Our challenge, especially in this age of budget cuts and financial situations that everybody is facing right now, is making sure that the arts remain a priority in education.”

ArtsNOW was established in partnership with Atlanta’s public schools in 2004. Millice said 121 schools, 587 teachers and 12 school systems have received the training, which consists of a 2½-day workshop and ongoing support.

Rather than taking a broad approach and training lots of Fulton County schools, Millice said, Fulton’s assistant superintendent of support services, Vicki Denmark, wanted to go for depth by targeting three schools.

The charter schools were a “perfect place,” Denmark said, because of the vertical team concept that allows coordination from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Each school has a group of teachers and administrators that have received and are still receiving professional development on how to integrate arts into the curriculum, and they have agreed on how that will be implemented, the outcome and how they will hold each other mutually accountable,” Denmark said.

Teachers and parents alike expressed excitement about integrating art into the classroom.

“The kids love it,” said Marson Richardson, a third-grade teacher at Woodland who attended the ArtsNOW training in July. “The teachers love it. The lessons are great, and more importantly, other than just integrating the arts, it really drives home the connections with math, language arts, reading, social studies, science. It is so much better than just paper-and-pencil work. It helps kids makes the connections between what they are studying and the real world.”

Teachers can create a variety of lesson plans that incorporate art. For example, at the elementary level, fifth-graders could learn about plant cells in an activity that combines science, visual art and music. Using materials like pompoms and modeling clay, the children create a model of the plant cell, then learn a song to remember the vocabulary.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Tracey Gresham, whose daughter Tamera is a fifth-grader at Woodland. “It’s just awesome because it motivates the kids.”

In middle school, students might incorporate language arts and theater through a dramatic reading of the poem “Casey at the Bat.” The exercise teaches students to project their voices, show emotion and take on the persona of a character as they would in a drama class.

“If the kids are excited about what they are learning, then they will be more apt to do better on their assignment,” said Quentonia Bennett, a sixth-grade reading teacher at Sandy Springs Middle School. “They really love doing this type of lesson. Whenever we do a dramatic reading, they just love it.”

At the high school level, in a lesson that blends language arts with music, students might study Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as it relates to both literary and musical compositions that share the title. Participants are introduced to three styles of artistic expression (vocal music, instrumental music and spoken word) and required to analyze both the musical and literary compositions.

“When words fail, music speaks,” said James Landreau, the orchestra director at North Springs.