Opening the door to schools

By Allan I. Ross

As the Lansing School District cuts elementary arts instructors, community groups re-evaluate their roles

Last week, the Lansing Board of Education approved a five-year teachers’ contract that will get the Lansing School District about $7 million closer to closing the next school year’s projected $9 million deficit. On the chopping block: 87 teaching positions, including 23 professionally certified — or “endorsed” — elementary school art, music and physical education teachers.

These programs aren’t being eliminated, mind you — just the positions for teachers who hold specialty degrees in art, music and PE (the cut also includes 27 non-endorsed arts teachers and 37 retiring teachers whose positions won´t be refilled). According to the plan, those duties would fall to the general education elementary school teachers, some of whom have had special training in these arts. They will become responsible for teaching their students one-point perspective, beat counting and proper free throw form in addition to a regular classroom schedule.

“We have no intention of eliminating the arts from our curriculum,” said Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul at last Thursday’s school board meeting. Then, in her Monday Morning Memo two days ago, she wrote, “The district … will begin redesigning our arts and physical education programming efforts in grades K–5 so that there are high levels of inclusivity with the community in the greater Lansing area.”

The arts community appears ready to help, but it is also concerned about the effect of the administration’s decision on arts education.

Among the resources available to the schools — well, to anyone living in Lansing — are the local visual arts nonprofit organizations, REACH Art Studio in REO Town and the Arts Council of Greater Lansing in Old Town. And then there’s Michigan State University’s Community Music School, the outreach division of the College of Music that moved into its new digs across from campus in East Lansing two months ago. The $1.4 million building received another $1.5 million in upgrades before the organization moved in, complete with cutting edge design work, musical technology and equipment.

“Our role is to supplement music instruction that is being given in public schools,” said Rhonda Buckley, executive director for CMS. “We look forward to helping any student who may not have adequate music instruction, but we have no intention of replacing a public elementary school’s music program.” CMS classes require tuition, but Buckley said the organization offers financial assistance.

Buckley said that CMS offers a variety of courses, ranging from early childhood music immersion programs designed for babies up to groups that can accommodate senior citizens who want to learn — or re-learn — a musical instrument. She said the majority of the instruction, however, focuses on elementary and high school students. She said she hasn’t heard from anyone in the Lansing School District yet, but she said CMS is prepared to handle an increase in student activity.

“But we’re holding out hope that the superintendent will reconsider her decision,” Buckley said.

Alice Brinkman founded the youth-centric REACH Studio Art Center in 2003 to bring art appreciation and creation “into a neighborhood setting.” She said she initiated contact with the school district recently to recruit elementary students for her after-school programs, half of which are free.

“It was disconcerting to hear (the LSD’s) solution to their budget problem,” she said. “I think it’s a sad day. If there’s going to be less attention to quality art education standards, then programs like what we offer out of school are going to be even more essential. We believe that educating in the arts is a vital piece of educating the child.”

Case in point: Brinkman was contacted last fall by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics, a collaboration between several universities, including MSU, that is funded by the National Science Foundation. JINA launched a program in tandem with REACH, called “Stellar Art,” that combined visual arts with science education for elementary school students.

“One of our instructors planned different art projects that were paired with science lessons, then an MSU professor would come every other week to do something that would inspire art,” Brinkman said. “At the end of the term, the JINA organization bused all the kids to the cyclotron building to install the art and take a tour. They recognize that art has a unique ability to engage a child in learning.”

But in this case, JINA funded all the art supplies, which went toward creating smashed “atoms” (actually marbles), “flying fish toys” and a papier-mâché solar system. A cash-strapped school district looking for a quality art education for its students certainly can’t expect a community-run program to provide education and materials, right? If Caamal Canul is planning to reach out to these groups, she’s already got their attention.

“We’re very interested to hear how the school programs will be redesigned and how the district will involve the mid-Michigan arts community in that,” said Leslie Donaldson, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing. “I would welcome a dialogue. The superintendent says she’s excited about some of her ideas. I would love to hear about those. The arts community wants to hear about them as well.”

Last June, the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education, a national association of state officials responsible for primary art education, published a white paper called, “Roles of Certified Arts Educators, Certified Non-Arts Educators, & Providers of Supplemental Arts Instruction.” The report almost seemed to predict Caamal Canul’s vision to reach out to the community for help:

“…(A)n unintended consequence (of the work of community artists and arts organizations with students) has been the temptation by some policymakers to embrace such supplemental programs as cost-saving replacements for public school-budgeted arts education….(T)he funding — and consequently the programs — are often transient and do not provide a regular system of universal, sequential, standards-based, K-12 arts education.” The full report can be read at

So yes, the arts programs will go on, but under a new, untested system, possibly utilizing a resource that experts say won’t fulfill the students’ needs. But the district’s spokesman, Bob Kolt, remains upbeat, saying that the Lansing redesign will be “revolutionary.” (Caamal Canul was unavailable for comment.)

“What we’re doing is very exciting — there’s not a model that we’re looking at,” Kolt said. “Parents weren’t happy with the system the way it was. We’re going to work to make ours better. We’re going to focus to create a quality program that creates value.”