By Jody Steinberg

Art is chaos, but art education shouldn’t be.

That was the message at the recent meeting of the Dunwoody-Chamblee Parent Council, which incorporates Dunwoody, Chamblee and Cross Keys high schools and their feeder schools. About 30 concerned parents from different schools, as well as Dist. 2 Board of Education member Don McChesney, gathered at the Chamblee Middle School library to hear about the status of and long-term plans for music and arts in DeKalb County schools.

Two DeKalb County School System administrators — Michael Meeks, the choral music coordinator and visual and performance arts coordinator, and Elizabeth Epps, the lead teacher for visual arts — detailed their efforts to increase the role of art in education and to standardize the art curriculum in DeKalb. The two oversee the arts faculty and the integration of music, band, orchestra, visual and performing arts in county public schools.

Parents expressed concerns that art classes are electives or even extracurricular activities in middle and high schools and that many students never have art education after elementary school.

“We’re trying to fight the battle that the arts do not live outside of the curriculum,” Meeks said. “Exposure to arts is important for every child to be a well-rounded adult.”

But the “rounded education” proponents are fighting an uphill battle with so much emphasis on the federal No Child Left Behind law and its measures of adequate yearly progress. A thorough search of the Georgia Department of Education performance standards Web sites did not produce matches for any of the arts-related terms used by Meeks and Epps, who are working to change the situation.

“I want to see a level of instruction and rigor that allows every student every day the opportunity to experience the arts and the richness it brings to our lives,” Epps said. She wants to see a certified fine arts teacher in every school, which, she noted, is a No Child Left Behind requirement.

Epps is on the Georgia Performance Arts Standards Commission, which is drafting recommendations for the state Education Department, some of which DeKalb has incorporated.

The goal is to make the arts an integral and progressive component of the DeKalb curriculum from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Academic standards give teachers the tools and framework for developing curriculum,” Meeks said, and establishing those standards for the arts will help achieve equity in access to education, a top benchmark for Superintendent Crawford Lewis.

“Art is an important aspect of the culture and life at Cross Keys,” where so many of the students are not native English speakers, department chairwoman Lisa Beavers said. “It’s a visual language, and it’s universal no matter what language you speak.”

The art program at the Brookhaven high school has a strong reputation across the county, and Cross Keys proudly displays student artwork throughout the school. For many students, art is the venue for equity, their means for success in school.

“Sometimes art is the only subject that keeps the students from dropping out,” said Epps, who sees art as an ideal way for schools to partner with the community.

“Schools can display student art in local businesses and enter their work in juried competitions,” she said. “Arts are a perfect way to build community.”