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Closing the Achievement Gap with Arts Programming

Ramon Gonzalez, founding principal of MS 223-The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, uses statistics to show how arts-powered schools help eliminate the reading achievement gap for low income students.

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.


Tuesday, July 19th, 2011, was an exciting day for our school.  It was an opportunity for me to participate with the White House staff and other arts education advocates in a discussion about how to continue to make arts an important part of our core curriculum. The pressure on schools to make budgetary cuts coupled with the increased stress of testing make arts programming during and after school often the first area that is cut. Sadly it disproportionately affects our neediest districts, especially those in the South Bronx.  We wanted to be part of this discussion because we felt we can contribute several solutions that have worked well with our students. We believe that by transforming schools to become Arts Powered Schools, schools can become activist centers that use the arts to build a community of learners.

What is an Arts Powered School?

The Center for Arts Education, who developed the concept of Arts Powered Schools, believes as we do that all schools can be arts powered schools if  they use the tools and resources of the community to help transform any school into a center of arts learning. 

In New York City’s Community School District 7, we had a literacy rate of 23% in grades 3-8 in 2010. That means only about a quarter of students are reading proficiently and on or above grade-level.  We believe that we need to change the culture of reading of our community by using the culture of the community as an asset to address summer learning loss. Partnering with the Multicultural Music Group, Yale Black Alumni Association, local teaching artists, teachers and principals, we offer students two hours of music instruction and two hours of visual arts instruction to inspire students to attend academic instruction that focuses on building reading stamina and a love for reading. This initiative is a three week summer program we call the "Summer Bridge Arts Institute." This program engages students in reading while developing students’ acumen through culturally relevant art. By developing great artists we know we can make great readers!

Research shows that summer reading loss explains 80% of the reading achievement gap by 9th grade. This problem was documented by Heyns (1978) who found that children in poverty rarely read during the summer months compared with more affluent children. The work of Hayes and Gretner (1983) found that when children are not attending school the reading achievement gap widens. Borman and Dowling (2006) have documented that summer programming can help eliminate the achievement gap for low income students. Furthermore, a widening disparity has been identified between students with access to arts programs and those school and districts that have deficits in access to arts programs. This inequity of arts opportunities flies in the face of research in Montgomery County, Maryland, showing that arts instruction woven into the curriculum closed the reading gap by nearly 15 points over a three year period (Real Visions, 2007). We decided that more of the same was not the answer to closing the achievement gap but using students’ culture exhibited in the arts to reengage them into the school day.

Everyone can become an Arts Powered School. Arts Powered Schools enlist all stake holders. The principal, teachers, students, parents, local artists, business leaders, university partners and arts organizations are all integral to this plan. By conducting action research that utilizes the arts you can also use the power of the arts to reengage students. Using visual arts to develop body maps and art hallway galleries can build self-esteem. Scheduling arts classes on low attendance days can raise attendance. Using drama to build resiliency and compassion in others can reduce bullying. Music instruction can foster discipline and pride in a variety of cultures and music traditions. We believe that arts programming can be an integral part of closing the achievement gap as it allows students to make connections to each other, themselves and the world.

Ramon Gonzalez is the founding principal of MS 223-The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, a middle school in the South Bronx.