As I start the new year at Brighton, my resolution is to consistently work toward a balanced curriculum. It is so easy to get caught up in the ongoing effort to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" and let the mandates of No Child Left Behind, control everything we do.
My first experience with this was during my term as State Teacher of the Year. I went one day every other week to help at the elementary school in our state with the lowest test scores. This was about an hour and a half drive from my home. Always during my drive back, I was overcome with a sense of dismay at what I saw happening in this school. The whole day appeared to be devoted to preparing for "the test." The curriculum was insubstantial and the school was a dull, lifeless place for children.
It reminded me of what a middle school student in my own county had created on his state assessment test. This student filled in the bubbles to spell out the words, Jesus save me! My reaction was similar as I observed in this school. I feel very strongly about the vital importance of an enriched curriculum in high-poverty schools. As a veteran Title I teacher I became aware long ago that it was part of my job to bring the world to children who often had very few outside experiences.
Now I am in a school that has been in School Improvement for seven out of eight years. Working under pressure to make AYP is a way of life for Brighton. I have written often about the sense of academic urgency that consumes me. However, I have to try to keep this in perspective and not forget about the big picture of giving Brighton children an enriched and well-rounded education to prepare them to compete in (and enjoy) the world.
In order to achieve this for our children, it has to be a conscious effort. Brighton is very fortunate to be part of a local school program called Better Basics. This program not only provides one-on-one tutoring by retired teachers and a volunteer reading program, it includes an enrichment package. The creator of this program, Sue Seay, shared with me how she became committed to bringing enrichment experiences to schools like Brighton.
Sue's children attend the most affluent schools in our state (which are located only about 15 minutes from Brighton). One day, as she picked up her son from school, he was bubbling over about a guest speaker he had just heard. On the drive home, she had a revelation. What her children experienced in their school and community was a major difference between affluent schools and poverty schools. Sue was determined to act on her insight. As a result of her hard work and the Better Basics organization, this year Brighton's children have experienced the Opera of Hansel and Gretel, shared time with author Jim Arnosky, and will see a performance by Poetry Alive this week. We have also been a part of the Peace Corps World Map Project.
In addition, our school system has an outstanding Fine Arts department, and they have arranged for our Third Grade students to be part of a month-long dance course titled Quilts, taught by a professional dance company. Our Fifth Grade students were a part of a writing grant sponsored by the Alabama School of Fine Arts, which made it possible for juniors at the Fine Arts School to come to Brighton bimonthly to write with our kids.
On our own staff, we have a great Fine Arts Team with outstanding full time art and music teachers. Plus, two other teachers on our staff graduated form the Alabama School of Fine Arts and our new first grade teacher is a graduate of Florida's state School of Performance. She has performed at Disney Tokyo and Disney Orlando. This creative team is organizing our first spring performing arts production. Not only is this important for our students, but this also allows us to truly make use of all the talents of our teachers.
If you've read the book No Excuses, which tells the stories of nearly two dozen successful high-poverty schools, you may have noticed that a number of the schools point to their strong fine arts programs as part of the reason they've engaged students and raised achievement.
We have a Fine Arts section in our School Improvement Plan. We believed it was vital for us to include these goals to ensure that this became a reality for Brighton children. We have to not only give the students this exposure, but the opportunity to develop their own talents as writers, artist, musicians, and actors. One day soon I hope our school logo will read:
Jefferson County's Brightest Star
A Fine Arts Integrated Curriculum School