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Parents Seek To Keep Creativity in Education

By Beth Lucas

Paint easels or digital calculators? For many school districts, the choice of how students should spend their school day is obvious in an era when scrutiny is on academics.They go for the calculators.

So parents who consider art vital are enrolling their children in schools specializing in performing, painting, and other creative pursuits.

"The arts help kids develop their creative talents," said Sandra Santos, whose daughter attends New Horizon School for the Performing Arts, a Mesa charter school. "I think the arts have given them a lot of selfesteem, confidence in themselves."

New Horizon is among a handful of charter schools for the arts formed in the last decade as the school choice movement took root in Arizona the same decade that brought the AIMS test.The increasing emphasis on Arizonas Instrument to Measure Standards a graduation requirement starting in 2006 means creative arts schools have to convince parents they are academically, as well as artistically, strong.

The Tempe charter school New School for the Arts and Academics added the word "academics" to its name for that very reason, school officials said. "The vast majority of students we get here do come from a public school that has been cutting their arts programs," said Gary Zaro, the school's director of student services and performing arts. School districts often require students who struggle with AIMS to take supplemental math courses. Reading and writing are integrated into nearly every course from physical education to science. For some students, there is less time to take creative arts. Some districts have also begun to look seriously at cutting back some art classes to focus more prominently on core subjects. For instance, in the Kyrene Elementary School District, arts, physical education and Spanish courses may be cut back about 17 percent in order to increase math classes from 45 to 68 minutes."One of the biggest mistakes you can make is if you just say art is important because it increases student achievement," said Maria Menconi, Kyrene's superintendent. "I think what it's about is what I would call the "bigger picture." And that is letting children understand there are many ways to excel and many talents." Schools should give students a taste of the arts, but parents also play a role in ensuring students get opportunities in the arts, Menconi said. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne maintains public schools shouldn't choose between the arts and the reading, writing and math tested on AIMS. Horne will participate in a panel discussion on AIMS during the Tribune Education Expo April 2.

"It's important to teach kids the academics," Horne said. "It's equally important they have the arts."CASY Country Day School, a Scottsdale charter school, has shown it can do both. CASY, which offers an accelerated academic program coupled with advanced arts, typically posts some of the highest test scores in the East Valley. Director John Spero said his school provides a niche for a smaller group of parents who want a school with an arts focus." The focus today of most parents is on academics," Spero said. "We're trying to build basic curriculum for every child to find something they succeed at."

At New Horizon School for the Performing Arts in Mesa, all children in the kindergarten-through-sixth grade school must take violin, dance and choral classes as well as visual and theater arts. Some students say this results in improved academics. "It's more challenging," sixth-grader Marina Mason, 11, said as she took a break from a recent practice of "Fractured Fairytale" in her dance class. "You have to keep your grades up and be a good actor."  Lynn Monson, operations manager for Carmel Community Arts and Technology, a Chandler charter school, said all students including those who don't excel in the arts learn what talents they have. That can be easy to do, she added, if schools integrate arts into academic programs.

"Students may learn literature, and they may read the book," she said. "But they also put on a play to help them better understand it."

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