News Column

Austin district looks to arts-heavy curriculum to boost Blackshear

August 3, 2014

By Melissa B. Taboada, Austin American-Statesman



Aug. 03--

A few dozen kindergartners at Blackshear Elementary will start the new school year flitting about the room, under the tutelage of professional ballet dancers.

Second-graders will learn to write songs. Fourth-graders could build a mock TV station.

The arts-rich lessons will be part of the Austin district's first elementary school fine arts academy at Blackshear. The majority of the school day will remain focused on traditional academics, but teachers will integrate creativity and artistic expression into the lessons. It can be as simple as having students act out a history lesson they were just taught. The last portion of the day will be dedicated to a particular fine arts strand, from orchestra to photography, taught by professionals in the field.

"When you can make a difference in their lives through the arts, it motivates them," said Greg Goodman, the district's fine arts director. "We have teachers teaching differently in the classroom. We see a higher engagement with students and a higher engagement with teachers. The days of students sitting and teachers lecturing them, those days are over."

The academy is part of the district's larger initiative to expand access to the arts for all students and does not require additional funding. As part of their professional development, teachers have been equipped to integrate the arts into lessons, and area professionals are donating time and services to the cause.

The academy at Blackshear -- which is at less than half capacity -- might also help boost enrollment. Placing signature programs at low-enrollment schools is a strategy the district has been using in recent years to attract more students to those campuses.

At 225 students last year, the school has seen enrollment dwindle since the late 1990s, according to Texas Education Agency data. District officials expect student enrollment this year to increase 33 percent to 300, which the school hasn't hit in nearly a decade, with greater increases in subsequent years. On Thursday night, more than a dozen new families excited about the program, announced just weeks ago, registered their children at an open house at the school.

In the past few years, the district has begun efforts for a greater arts-rich curriculum in music, dance, theater and the visual and media arts; an anonymous donor gave the district $1 million toward the initiative. The district already has fine arts academies at Lamar Middle School and McCallum High School. Other schools, such as Kealing Middle School, are also bolstering their fine arts offerings.

Since Blackshear began incorporating more fine arts teaching into the curriculum two years ago, student academic performance has soared. Last year, the state awarded the school all three of the distinction designations -- for academic achievement in reading, academic achievement in math and student progress. Children-at-Risk, the Houston-based nonprofit that ranks schools in each of the state's large metropolitan areas, in May rated Blackshear a gold ribbon school, a high performing campus with a high percentage of low-income students. The school's students are nearly all black and Hispanic, and more than 97 percent are from low-income families.

"Students are excited when they're performing their work," Blackshear Principal Betty Jenkins said. "We're working together to educate the whole child."

On Fridays, the students will get an extra dose of fine arts, with more options, including exercise: yoga, cycling, athletics and dancing.

"We want to reach inside these kids, find out where they are and improve their talents and their creativity," Goodman said. "We want them to use those academic skills and apply them to all areas of their lives."

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Blackshear Elementary 2013-14 enrollment:

225 students

Hispanic: 71.7%

African American: 25.2%

White: 0.4%

Asian: 0.4%

Two or more races: 2.2%

Economically disadvantaged: 97.3 percent

English language learners: 40.7%

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(c)2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)


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