It's the Arts, Stupid!
Orlando Weekly , January 20, 2005
By Leigh de Armas
Morris Sorin, the principal and director of New School Preparatory, walks excitedly through a sea of empty, miniature desks and chairs.
His wide eyes are animated behind his thick glasses, and his smile never
"Since we did so much last night, today is a fluff day," Sorin says as
his pace quickens. "There will probably be lots of absences after last
night's Winter Fest."
Some might consider it odd for a school principal to talk about "fluff
days" with a smile on his face. But Sorin isn't an average principal, and
New School Preparatory isn't an average school. This is a place that
emphasizes learning via the arts, adhering to the philosophy that music,
dancing, painting and drama help kids perform better in the classroom.
That's about 180 degrees from where most public schools, including Orange
County, find themselves in the era of the federal No Child Left Behind
Act. Preparation for standardized testing is the mantra nowadays. The federal
government holds public schools accountable by grading the schools' performance
according to their FCAT scores. Orange County had three failing schools
What's it like to go to school at a place where the FCAT isn't the Holy
Grail, and art isn't considered a waste of time? Let's take a tour of the
New School and find out.
The facilities at the New School are modest. Class sizes are small, with
a student body of only 130, from kindergarten through eighth grade. The
school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, meaning
it meets or exceeds FCIS standards for elementary and secondary nonpublic
education. Tuition is $8,200 per year.
Sorin himself spent years in Ohio's public schools as a teacher, assistant
principal, curriculum director and a superintendent, but decided it was
time to stop following the crowd. The New School website says Sorin received
his master's degree in curriculum design and educational administration
from Case Western Reserve University, and has founded three schools during
his career: the Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto, the Phoenix Center for
Education in Arizona and New School Preparatory on East Marks Street
"We looked at the research, and the research shows that students that
had a broad-based background in all areas achieved higher," says Sorin. "We
really wanted to develop renaissance students, which means students that
are able to go to a concert and listen to classical or jazz, or get up
on stage and sing beautifully. We want them to be able to enjoy life, and
to go to the theater."
Sorin believes there's a correlation between the arts and gifted children. "For
whatever the reason, when gifted children are born, they are really given
the freedom to do almost anything. I'm talking about truly gifted children.
That means they could learn how to sing, dance or be a musician or an artist.
And what do they do? They get As," he says.
Mary Palmer, coordinator of graduate studies in music education at the
University of Central Florida (UCF) and an expert on music and child development,
says a focus on arts is essential for development.
"For many students, the arts are the key to learning," she says. "In addition,
for many, the arts are the motivating factor which keeps them in school.
Neurological research has indicated that studying the arts, particularly
music, actually 'builds brains.'"
Sorin walks out of a classroom's side door and makes the short trek toward
a light bluish-gray building across the road.
"We have an extremely unusual staff," he says along the way. "It takes
about a year to really train these teachers to work here."
Teaching at the New School is a highly sought-after position for area
educators. Sorin says he received more than 60 job applications last year,
and with only 15 teaching slots available, there is rarely enough room
to do much hiring.
The teachers are schooled in Multiple Intelligences theory, created by
Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. MI theory focuses
on strengthening musical, bodily, logical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal
and intrapersonal intelligences.
Teachers at the New School don't simply assign homework and give tests.
They teach by doing. Greek theater is taught by producing plays in class,
Italian by singing operas.
That methodology is behind the school's high percentage of gifted graduates,
says Sorin. He estimates that 25 percent of the kids who graduate from
New School could qualify for Mensa, which means they would score in the
top 2 percent of the general population on a standardized intelligence
test. However, since the school's population is too small for formal statistic-keeping,
there's no hard evidence for his assertion.
There is evidence to support the idea that arts make you smart. In the
August 2004 issue of the American Psychological Society journal, Psychological
Science, scientists at the University of Toronto conducted a study that
supported the concept that music lessons improve intellect. A group of
144 6-year-olds were randomly assigned different tasks for the yearlong
study: keyboard lessons, drama lessons, singing lessons or no lessons at
all. Researchers found that students taking keyboard or voice lessons had
larger IQ increases after their studies than the children who took drama
lessons or none at all.
According to a Newsday article, "Awaken your Einstein: What makes kids
smart?", researchers found that college board statistics from the 2002
SATs showed that music students scored over 40 points higher on the math
portion of the test, and earned significantly higher verbal scores.
SOUND OF MUSIC
Sorin walks up a blue wooden ramp leading to the music room, and can hardly
contain his excitement as he swings open the door. Inside, dozens of children
are sitting in a circle, belting out show tunes in perfect harmony. When
the children see Sorin, their singing gets louder and more confident.
"We just got permission to do Les Miserables in March," he whispers, trying
not to disrupt the singing. "We had to get special permission from New
York to do this, which is not an easy thing to do."
A young blond girl stands up and the piano teacher begins keying a melancholy
tune from Les Miserables . Her face wears the mature sadness she sings
about. Everyone listens:
I dreamed a dream of days gone by
When hopes were high and life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving .
"She has the most beautiful voice," Sorin leans over and whispers. "She
never sang until she got here, and now she's phenomenal."
After listening to three more songs, Sorin leaves the children and meanders
through different classrooms. He walks down a long hallway into a room
with drawings covering the walls.
"This is where our children sit to draw," he says, and stops to look at
a row of pastel rose-petal drawings. His eyes light up as if he's about
to reveal a secret. "This is our first -grade art studio," he says proudly,
pointing to pictures that look as if they belong in a high-school art studio. "We
tell them, 'You can draw any way you want after you know what it is to
draw.' That way they are making choices out of knowledge, not out of ignorance," he
Ten minutes later, he enters another art studio, walks over to a plastic
bin full of laminated drawings and holds up a handful of colorful peacock
drawings. "The Winter Park Art Festival had a school contest, and the students
were supposed to draw the festival's logo, which was a peacock." He holds
up three different pictures and smiles. "We won first place, second place
and an honorable mention." Delight overwhelms him as he gazes fondly at
the drawings. "I think I get more excited about these things than the children
who actually won!"
He walks out of the building and passes the music room again where children
can still be heard singing.
"Most of our kids start out in public school. They didn't want to go to
school then. Here, they don't want to go home. They think they're at camp."
NO ARTS LEFT
UCF music professor Palmer has trained many OCPS music instructors. She
says Orange County's art programs are feeling the effects of No Child Left
"Inevitably, the pressures [of federal accountability] have led to some
cuts in both time and space for arts instruction," says Palmer. "The recent
study of the status of arts education in Orange County underscored the
inequitable access to arts education in schools across the county - i.e.,
some schools, especially due to their smaller size, have more time for
quality arts instruction with specialist teachers."
She adds, "The accountability system . causes some arts teachers to spend
some instructional time specifically teaching reading and other skills,
instead of teaching the arts."
Tim Shea, chairman of the school board for Orange County Public Schools,
says this type of problem is unavoidable under federal mandates. "The New
School is not required by law to take the FCAT like the public schools
are. So they're free to have flexibility with their curriculum," says Shea. "However,
I would like to see more of an emphasis on drawing and visual arts [in
the public schools.] Unfortunately, a lot of schools are tied to their
budgets. For example, if a school is in need of a reading specialist, they
may not have enough money for an art teacher."
Carolyn Minear, the director of fine arts for OCPS, agrees. "I think it's
safe to say that there is less money available for arts programs today
than there was five years ago," she says. "It's an unintended consequence
[of No Child Left Behind]. If you spend more time and money on one thing,
you'll obviously have less time and money to spend on other things."
There's no way to know how much Orange County schools spend now versus
how much they spent before NCLB was enacted, adds Minear.
"Every school is doing it differently. It's up to each school's principal
[to allocate money toward their own arts programs.] But we're all intent
on the children having a healthy exposure to the arts." She pauses for
a moment. "It's the 'how' that we're having issues with."
Copyright 2005 Orlando Weekly. Reprinted with permission.