The art teacher at Greenbelt Elementary School is on a rotation, spreading his time between three other schools in Prince George’s County.
To Ingrid Hass, a parent of two students at the school, the schedule for the teacher and especially the students is unacceptable.
“That means [the art teacher] doesn’t even know any children’s names,” Hass told the school board during a recent budget hearing. Hass said she questions what students gain from such a limited exposure to the arts.
Prince George’s Schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell said he has been wondering the same thing.
As he tours schools in the district to assess their needs, Maxwell said one issue that has struck him is the limited number of art instruction hours students receive. Some students in the county have art class once every nine weeks, he said.
“I don’t think that’s enough,” Maxwell said during a recent phone interview. “It’s not that what they are getting isn’t good, but it’s not getting across what we’d like to get across.”
Prince George’s, like many districts across the country, cut back on art education programs because of budget squeezes and a push to place a greater emphasis on reading and math.
In a 2012 survey of arts education, the U.S. Department of Education found that 43 percent of full-time visual art specialists reported that they taught at more than one elementary school in 2009-2010. Unlike Prince George’s, the majority said students received art instruction once a week.
“High-quality arts education is absolutely critical to providing all students with a world-class education,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech when the survey was released. “The study of the arts can significantly boost student achievement, reduce discipline problems, and increase the odds that students will go on to graduate from college.”
Dorothy Clowers, the principal at William Paca Elementary School in Landover, said her art teacher “works so hard,” but the students only see her “once in a blue moon.”
“The students are so happy when it’s time for her to come to William Paca,” Clowers said.
Her rotation is every four weeks. She stays at the school for two weeks, then moves on to her next school.
Clowers said there is an art component to classroom lesson plans but the students study the work of artists and have the opportunity to draw and create when the art teacher comes to the school.
Maxwell said that as he puts together his first budget, he is looking at restoring art programs that were scaled back during steep budget cuts that resulted in hundreds of layoffs and job eliminations.
He is seeking approval from the County Council to add 10 full-time art teachers to the current budget as part of a $ 18 million proposal to make changes to this year’s $ 1.7 billion spending plan.
“[Students] are getting grades in art,” Maxwell said. “This is what we have in an arts program right now at the end of the Great Recession, and we’ll work to fix that.”
Maxwell said he wants students to not only learn to create art, but also have art integrated into more lesson plans.
“It’s not enough to just teach content,” he said. “You have to teach kids to do and create. . . . It helps you to retain what you learn better.”
The county has two magnet programs for the arts, at Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts School for kindergarten through eighth grade, and at Suitland High School’s Center for the Visual and Performing Arts.
The arts is one of many programs, including environmental literacy, that Maxwell said he wants to improve in the county.
But Maxwell’s plans appeared to run into trouble last week when members of the school board questioned his focus on arts and environmental literacy at the expense of reading and math programs.
“I’m not saying it’s not a priority,” said Edward Burroughs (District 8), referring to the art program. “But we have more urgent priorities.”