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Arts Score at Private School

Students at Fullerton institution benefit from small classes and a curriculum featuring music, dance and drama.

October 08, 2000|LYNN O'DELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When several Orange County public schools show big gains on standardized test scores, administrators give the credit to more time spent on the Three Rs.

But more time spent singing, dancing and acting might have been just as effective. Those activities can drive up test scores, too, according to research and the experience of a small private school in Fullerton.

While public schools stretch classroom reading time and pile on math problems with an eye to improving their Stanford 9 scores, the Berkeley School for Academics and the Arts practically ignores standardized tests.

But the arts, axed during financial hard times at most public schools, are thriving at Berkeley, where examples of students' visual art covers every inch of wall space and every morning begins with 30 minutes of aerobic dance steps.

Researchers tracking 25,000 students nationwide over a 10-year period began releasing data in 1997 that showed that students involved in the arts do better in school than those who aren't involved.

Among 10th graders, for example, 47.5% of low-arts-involved students scored in the top half of standardized tests while 65.7% of high-arts-involved students scored above the test median, according to a study by the Imagination Project at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The 38 kindergarten through sixth grade students at Berkeley get 1 1/2 hours of art, 1 1/2 hours of music and 2 1/2 hours of dance each week. They put on three shows a year, including a Shakespeare production. Last spring it was "The Taming of the Shrew." Students are currently working on "Winter Sing," a musical production scheduled for Dec. 15.

"We are certainly committed to a strong academic program as well," said Korla Childress, who founded the school with co-director Lynn Costello in 1976.

"And the children do learn to read and write and calculate, but the arts, we think, are just as important."

As for test scores, Berkeley isn't required to give the Stanford 9 test, which the state uses to hold public schools accountable. But to provide practice in taking timed tests, the school gives students the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

A 10-year average of Berkeley scores put it close to the 98th percentile, Costello said. The average student was in the 90th percentile. Generally, Berkeley School students score one to two grade levels above average, she said.

She and Childress say they believe the high test scores result from a combination of the strong arts curriculum and the individualized instruction students get in small classes with lots of subgroups.

Students who consistently act in plays and musicals, join drama clubs or take acting lessons showed gains in reading proficiency, self-concept and motivation, the UCLA study found. By 12th grade, those consistently involved with instrumental music scored significantly higher on math tests. The findings held true for students regardless of parents' income, occupation or level of education, researchers said.

Another study, which evaluated Chicago arts partnerships in inner-city schools, found that after a push for improvement, test scores went up throughout the district, but at schools with arts-integrated programs, "test-score increases were even greater," said Lynn Waldorf, managing director of the Imagination Project.

Both studies were part of a report compiling seven major studies on learning and the arts. "Champions of Change--The Impact of the Arts on Learning" was sponsored by the GE (General Electric) Fund and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

"What happens with the arts is that it increases children's motivation and gets them excited about the work," Waldorf said. "It strengthens creative and critical thinking skills."

Childress and Costello said they weren't surprised by the news.

"We knew that from our own school experiences. We knew how important it was to include the arts in the day," Childress said. "Some students die on the vine without it."

There's no admissions test at Berkeley and students' abilities cover a wide range, including some mild learning disabilities, some "happy, fairly average" students and some truly gifted youngsters, she said.

The year-round school runs from August, closing in July, November and half of March and April. Tuition is $4,500. Intersessions with themed enrichment programs (students last year built a Western boomtown out of cardboard boxes) are offered during the off months and cost $300 per session.

Students with a flair for the arts are drawn to the school, which occupies two circa-1910 houses, but parents are equally pleased to know that grammar, phonics and geography are part of the curriculum.

Barbara Braden Meyer, the school's art specialist, started working at Berkeley two years ago and was so impressed that she enrolled her daughter. She wishes her two other children had gone there as well.

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