Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
This past week, I had the privilege of participating in what I consider a “lifetime experience” in Washington, DC. I began Tuesday, July 19, by meeting with a group of exceptional educators from across the United States who are strong advocates of integrating arts into the curriculum. Through my affiliation with the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), I have had the opportunity to meet with colleagues from other geographical areas; however, I have never been provided with an occasion to collaborate with fellow educators from other areas of the United States who share a passion for arts education. As the principal of a school in a small town in south Alabama, sitting with a superintendent from a large district in Maryland, along with directors of highly successful programs in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and the South Bronx was truly incredible. The group quickly realized that our differences in geographical locations, backgrounds, and dialect were minor. On the other hand, our common dedication toward providing schools richly immersed in the arts quickly connected us into a cohesive group.
Following our meeting with fellow educators, we were introduced to a group of actors who strongly advocate providing arts education in schools. As members of the Creative Coalition, Tim Daly (coalition president), Omar Epps, Patricia Arquette, Rachel Leigh Cook, and Minnie Driver joined our group of educators for a guided tour of the East Wing of the White House. Initial feeling of inhibitions from meeting famous individuals immediately disappeared because of their friendliness and warmth. Once given a briefing by a secret service officer, our phenomenal White House tour began. In moments, our group jelled as we took advantage of every possible photo opportunity – photos of White House memorabilia and photos with celebrities!
Just as our group of educators discovered that background differences were overshadowed by similarities; likewise, a similar association was made between educators and members of the Creative Coalition as we sat together for a roundtable discussion facilitated by Mary Schmidt Campbell, Vice-Chairman for the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and Peter Cunningham, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education. Once the preliminaries of sharing our individual backgrounds and successes with arts education programs concluded, a true discussion began. Educators and actors shared heartfelt beliefs that successful schools are ones that provide multiple experiences in the arts – especially arts integrated into the curriculum. Individuals from various committees and associations were present in the room as the discussion proceeded. As actors shared the significance of arts in schools from their own lives, educators described the invaluable importance the arts play in their programs. While expressing an understanding of the obvious significance of core subject areas, all of the members of our group demonstrated a strong conviction that the arts should coexist within the curriculum. As our nation faces high student dropout rates, apathy toward school attendance, and significant lack of tolerance among students with diversity – a unanimous agreement was expressed that the arts have the capability to play a vital role as a catalyst for change. During our discussion, Tim Daly quoted Winston Churchill’s response as he was urged to eliminate spending on the arts to support Great Britain’s World War II expenses, “Then what are we fighting for?”
I serve as principal of Rockwell Elementary School in Spanish Fort, Alabama where our faculty, staff, and parents have made a commitment to providing students with an education strongly immersed in the arts. Our school takes several approaches toward meeting this goal. The arts are integrated into the curriculum to support other academic areas; music, visual arts, theatre, and dance are taught as individual disciplines; and (using the Discipline-Base Arts Education model) major units of study are presented where the arts become the core subjects and other subject areas are integrated into the arts. In addition, through a partnership with the Mobile Symphony (Mobile, Alabama), students are given symphonic music instruction in lower grades with the opportunity to enroll in strings instruction in third, fourth, and fifth grades. I direct a school choir that includes 90 third, fourth and fifth grade students who perform at school and community functions and events. We are also strong supporters of the state and national PTA’s Reflections Program, which encourages individual creativity in visual art, music composition, photography, and creative writing. We feel that the arts have played a significant role in the high academic performance of our students, high percentage rates of attendance, low incidents of discipline referrals, and a high tolerance for individual differences among students.
Robbie Owen has been an elementary school principal for the past twenty-two years and has been principal of Rockwell Elementary School in Spanish Fort, Alabama since 1997.