Photo by David Stephenson
Ah, the good old days. Franklin County High School, marching band, 1990-something. We had brand-new uniforms, and we looked fabulous: gleaming white jackets with gold buttons, flashy feathers that stood tall on top of our hats, making our school spirit visible from the football field and the grandstand.
Fifteen years later, I went back to my alma mater for the annual Christmas bazaar, the band’s biggest fundraiser. There it was: that same uniform, shabby and faded, buttons missing, an anemic feather drooping from the tattered hat. The once-great uniform hung limply on a mannequin, accompanied by a sign requesting donations.
And so it goes in the arts these days. When school budgets are cut, arts education is usually the first thing on the chopping block. The tighter budgets get, the more schools must rely on fundraisers and private donations to keep kids in art supplies and, say, decent band uniforms. A recent study by South Arts, a regional arts organization funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, showed that Kentucky is at or above the national average in providing arts education. That’s the good news. The bad news is, according to a report from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, “due to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend.”
So imagine my delight when I found out about SCAPA at Bluegrass (School for the Creative and Performing Arts) in Lexington. This school consists of around 275 kids, grades 4-8, who focus intensively on the arts. (There also is a SCAPA program available to high school students.) Surely they must be lagging behind other students in fields like math and science? Actually, no. Academically speaking, it is one of the best middle schools in the state.
SCAPA at Bluegrass principal Beth Randolph sits in a conference room and turns her smartphone over in her hands. “The arts are everywhere you look,” she says. “Art is all over this room, in every building, in every advertisement—even in this phone. An artist designed this.”
Randolph, who has been with SCAPA for 26 years of its 27-year history, grew up playing piano and performing with her school’s band. That experience gave her many of the benefits her own students now reap at SCAPA. “It made me love music,” she says. “It taught me how to be a leader. It taught me discipline.”
The discipline fostered by arts education is evidenced in SCAPA’s standardized test scores. SCAPA was ranked second among Kentucky’s middle schools in 2013, according to its scores on the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) tests. In 2012, the school ranked first. Kentucky’s standardized testing has changed over the years, but according to Randolph, SCAPA has been at or close to the top for decades. This is even more impressive considering that kids at SCAPA spend less time studying core academics because they are in their arts classes about two hours a day.
The first reason Randolph gives for this success is that SCAPA students, who must audition to attend the school, want to be there. “The kids love coming to school,” she says. “They get to do something they love every day. At the end of the school year, they were crying on the bus. They didn’t want school to be over.”
Another reason for student success is that integrating arts into the curriculum benefits student learning in all subjects. In 2011, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities reported something that arts educators had suspected for many years: “Arts integration models, the practice of teaching across classroom subjects in tandem with the arts, have been yielding some particularly promising results in school reform and closing the achievement gap,” the committee’s report said. “Most recently, cutting-edge studies in neuroscience have been further developing our understanding of how arts strategies support crucial brain development in learning.”
Alberta “Bert” Labrillazo has been teaching drama at SCAPA since 1991. She has seen the power of art to improve learning. “At our school, all of our teachers are on board with integrating the arts into the curriculum,” she says. “For example, in an art class they might be talking about the water cycle. If I’m teaching set design, I’ll integrate math, for dimensions. Integrating the arts is a great strategy. It’s interesting, it’s fun, and kids love to be creative.”
Turns out fun and creativity are not incompatible with achievement. Randolph talks about long days at SCAPA, when students may be at school from 8 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. if they have after-school performances. They do it because they love it, and the results go beyond the stage and the test scores. “There’s no time for them to get into trouble,” she says. “We have a very rigorous academic program here.”
Dr. Jackie Sugarman, mother of recent SCAPA graduates Leila and Amir Abou-Jaoude, says both of her kids benefited from the rigors of the school’s celebrated speech team. The team has won 17 straight state championships.
“They learned to be such eloquent speakers,” she says. “Extemporaneous speech made them so cognizant of what’s going on in the world, so aware of the situation in other countries, which I think is very important. They can participate in a lot of activities as a result of speaking well.” Leila and Amir both talk about how much they loved the speech team. These two budding artists also found in SCAPA a community of acceptance.
“They’re surrounded by like-minded kids,” Labrillazo says. “A student who loves to sing would not be teased here. In fact, they’re celebrated and encouraged. What a great environment.”
For Amir, who auditioned in creative writing, attending the school helped him broaden his interests. “I became a better writer because of SCAPA,” he says. “But I also enjoyed being on the speech team and being in a school play.”
Amir’s experience on the speech team convinced him to go to Henry Clay High School, where he continues this interest, as well as his writing. He says being at SCAPA taught him to think creatively about problems and about the world around him. “The arts are built on creativity, setting yourself apart, finding your own voice,” Amir says. “At SCAPA, we were encouraged to find our own creative way. It’s not formulaic.”
For his younger sister, Leila, seeing Amir in the SCAPA community made her want to experience it for herself. “I had been hanging around Amir. He would have speech team or play practice, and I would just tag along,” she says. “It was such an enticing option.”
Leila got into SCAPA as a visual artist but later turned to the violin. She also enjoys singing. Having just graduated from SCAPA, she plans to attend Lafayette High School next door. There, she’ll be able to return to SCAPA for elective classes. “I really felt like Lafayette was the best choice. They offer a lot with their SCAPA classes,” she says. “I really enjoy the variety in all the arts categories at SCAPA.”
“I think arts education is crucial to children’s development,” says Sugarman. “I think it teaches them empathy. I think it teaches them discipline because they have to be very focused on what they do. It teaches them to work together.”
It’s tough to get into SCAPA. The school, which is part of the Fayette County Public Schools system, holds auditions each year for incoming fourth-graders. Students audition in one of nine arts areas—creative writing, visual arts, band, strings, vocal music, piano, drama, contemporary dance and ballet—and, of about 400 students, SCAPA admits around 50. With an acceptance rate of about 12 percent, the program is not able to accommodate many kids who want to pursue an arts education there. Randolph is the first to say that she would love to admit more students. But with SCAPA, as with all schools, and particularly with arts education, resources are limited.
The school does offer several community outreach programs for elementary students to help spread awareness about the arts and encourage students of all economic levels to bring the arts into their lives. Fundraising and private donations, primarily through SCAPA’s parent-led fundraising group called Friends of the Arts School, support these outreach opportunities.