Arkansas A+ puts art in academics 

Thea Foundation's teaching model puts kids in the mood to learn.

In a sixth-grade math class in the Delta, students are making quilts. They're cutting squares from colorful patterned paper and folding them to make triangles or rectangles. They've measured the squares to make sure they're 3 inches on a side, because if they don't make their squares right, the quilt will be off. They're alternately laughing and concentrating, filling a larger square with their shapes to create their own designs. When they get a bit rowdy, Annette Butler claps her hands three times and the kids stop and clap back. Things settle down again.

A reporter asked a grinning young man after he finished his work what he'd gotten from the activity.

"I think I got a 100!"

That would be an A+ — which also happens to be part of the name of the method that Arkansas A+ program director Butler was demonstrating. This student, enrolled in Arkansas's newly revived A+ schools network, had learned how to measure, the importance of accuracy, some geometry and how to follow instructions on the board properly, but he wasn't fed the information. He hadn't been given a fill-in-the-blank work sheet, but paper full of possibilities. He created art that incorporated the answers to what is a square, what is a rectangle, how many do I need to fill a larger square. And then he exulted, I did this right!

The A+ method of arts-infused education, being promoted by the Thea Foundation in North Little Rock, puts the art in math, the drama in literature, the song in history, and has a proven record of raising test scores, improving discipline and heightening student and teacher satisfaction. Thea Director Paul Leopoulos is convinced of its ability to turn around Arkansas's struggling schools and enriching its high-achieving ones, and he's been knocking on the door of the state Department of Education for years trying to spread the word. A couple of months ago, the door opened a bit, when educators in the department's Learning Services Division gave an audience to Leopoulos and John Brown of the Windgate Foundation, which initiated an A+ pilot program in Arkansas in 2003.

Laura Bednar, the Education Department's associate commissioner for learning services, wasn't able to attend that meeting because of a bout with pneumonia. But she'd met Leopoulos, was impressed with A+ and set up the meeting with her staff, which is searching for ways to help the state's 46 "needs improvement priority" schools and 109 "focus" schools that show a wide gap in student achievement.

"When you look at the schools where this is implemented there are dramatic increases in student achievement and making students feel like they can use their creativity," Bednar said. Principals from Fort Smith — where Cook and Woods elementary schools have been using the A+ model for nearly a decade — have told Bednar that their "students had come alive" because of the method, she said.

Many educational improvement products are pitched to the Education Department; it is "hit with vendors every day," Bednar said. She believes the Thea Foundation is pushing for A+ "for the right reasons. They are not trying to sell something."

But right now, only 12 schools in Arkansas are A+ schools. Leopoulos wants to change that.

***

Leopoulos' passion for arts-infused education is fueled by what he saw the arts do for his daughter, who, he confessed, he'd once described as an "average student — shame on me." He saw that his daughter's achievements in art classes gave her the self-confidence she needed to excel in academic areas.

When a beaming Thea Kay Leopoulos came home with her painting of musician B.B. King, "It was the first day of the rest of her life," Leopoulos said.

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