Over the past week, the arts-magnet school hosted a series of events, including a May 13 Kaleidoscope Children’s Festival, a May 17 Arts Extravaganza Day, and a community breakfast and afternoon school spirit party May 19.
At the Friday breakfast, Central Elementary Principal John Sanderson greeted county leaders including Central alums Tom Alexander, Haywood County sheriff; Kirk Kirkpatrick, Haywood County commissioner; and Joe Sam Queen, architect and fellow classmate of Sanderson’s. The audience also included the current and two former Haywood County Schools superintendents (Anne Garrett, Bill Upton and Karen Campbell, respectively) and community volunteers who were among the initial planners when the school first explored becoming an A+ school. Current and former students of Central had their artwork on display in the school’s lobby. A student choir led by drama and music teacher Martha Youngwood presented a mix of patriotic songs.
“It’s been a great 10 years,” Sanderson said, offering a PowerPoint presentation charting the history of Central’s A+ program.
The school’s A+ designation means it is part of a national network of more than 100 schools in seven states that use arts integration in a whole-school reform effort, which aims to build challenging lessons for students. Art specialists collaborate with classroom teachers before, during and after school to develop a more in-depth curriculum that has proven to weather the notorious No Child Left Behind testing onslaught and other state and local reform initiatives. Using art activities across the curriculum, the students also experience a great deal of hands-on activities and are tested in alternative ways that go far beyond paper-and-pencil multiple choice tests.
“We don’t turn this [school] into a test factory,” Sanderson said.
The A+ program began under the guidance of the Kenan Institute for the Arts with private and public funding and later moved to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The program is grounded in the latest educational practices, brain research, and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (that people have at least eight different levels of smartness, including verbal smarts, visual smarts and interpersonal smarts).
Ten years ago, Central Elementary was one of 25 schools in North Carolina chosen in the first wave of A+ schools. There are now 42 A+ schools in the state network and dozens more in Oklahoma, Arkansas, North and South Dakota, Michigan and Wisconsin. A national A+ conference last year lured more interested educators from around the U.S. and England.
Because of Central Elementary’s connection to A+, students, teachers and staff at the school get to do things that most schools don’t get to do, Sanderson explained. There are more creative opportunities at the school, more opportunities to study visual and performing arts, and more opportunities to involve teachers and the community. For example, the school regularly hosts the countywide Junior Appalachian Music program, so that local students can learn how to play fiddles, banjos, guitars and Appalachian music in an after-school arts program. The school also welcomes guest artists to perform, demonstrate and teach various art forms to the students — everything from pottery to African drumming to Mayan weaving. This past April, Central Elementary students enjoyed a special visit from Grammy Award-winning singer/storyteller David Holt.
Despite having 50 percent or more of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunch — often used as an indicator of at-risk student populations — the school has steadily raised its test scores, according to Sanderson, who showed a graphic of cumulative scores over the past decade. The scores climbed and dipped but rose over the long haul.
In a fitting tribute to the type of volunteerism the school has become known for, Parent-Teacher Organization President Jay Macdonald presented Val Powell with a bouquet and award for her dedication as a school volunteer. Powell has volunteered at the school for 18 years with five of her children having graduated or now currently enrolled in the school.
“This thing doesn’t work without the help of a lot of folks,” Sanderson said.
Allison Best-Teague, the chairperson of the school’s advisory committee, explained to the Friday breakfast audience that the arts are essential in schools. Cultures all around the world have used the arts to help bring people together, to share history, and to build future citizens. Without the arts, Teague said, “We run the risk of losing that as a society.”