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Making the grade through arts

In the effort to raise standardized test scores and contend with budget constraints, arts education often gets pushed to the fringes of school life. But at a dozen New Orleans-area public schools that work with the local nonprofit KID smART, the arts are a classroom focal point and a powerful teaching tool to support the core curriculum.

With a team of teaching artists and with specialized training for classroom teachers, the organization works from the idea that arts can reach students in a way that traditional classroom methods might not.

“There’s an equal balance between art content and the core content the teacher needs to cover anyway,” says Echo Olander, executive director of KID smART. “It’s the idea of teaching to the whole child and engaging them to make the classroom a more lively place for everyone.”

For its efforts, the group has just received a prestigious Arts Education Award from Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based group widely hailed as the nation’s leading nonprofit for advancing the arts.

“This is a first for us. We’ve gotten many great local props, but this is the first time we’ve received national recognition like this. We’re hopeful it will give us greater visibility for further fundraising,” says Olander.

Local artists Campbell Hutchinson and Allison Stewart formed KID smART in 1999. They began with Saturday programs at Fischer Elementary School in Algiers, and later added Guste Elementary School in Central City, which primarily served residents of nearby public housing developments. As KID smART has grown from these roots to serve 12 schools around New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, its programming also has evolved to help meld arts and classroom instruction into students’ daily experience. 

Professional arts educators now co-teach with classroom teachers. These teachers, meanwhile, may participate in monthly training to better integrate arts into their lessons through a program called Arts Experience in the Schools, or AXIS. This training brings together teachers, KID smART staff and representatives from a host of local cultural institutions, from the New Orleans Ballet Association to the Louisiana Children’s Museum.  

“We came to the conclusion that to best serve children we need to build capacity with the adults who are teaching them,” says Olander. “Our long-term goal is to get teachers to the point where they are confident enough to lead workshops themselves and really be leaders in the field.”


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