Twelve Arkansas schools are emphasizing visual and performing arts in an effort to engage students as part of the growing A+ network.

Begun in North Carolina in 1995, the movement has spread to 40 schools in that state and another 70 in Oklahoma. It started in Arkansas in 2003 with a grant from the Siloam Springs-based Windgate Foundation, petered out in the wake of No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on standardized tests, and now is gaining momentum thanks to the support of the North Little Rock-based Thea Foundation.

The model incorporates art into the entire curriculum rather than limiting it to a single class period.

For example, Dayna Maloch’s second grade students at North Little Rock’s Pike View Elementary study habitats by constructing nature scenes using Styrofoam lunch boxes. In math, they build cubes using toothpicks and marshmallows because second-graders have trouble understanding three-dimensional concepts on two-dimensional worksheets.

Maloch said the model has made it easier for her to engage students.

“You’re not the Charlie Brown teacher – just ‘wah-wa-wah-wa-wah’ all day long,” she said. “Because you’re moving around the room, they’re engaged, they’re learning, they’re exploring, they’re talking about what they’re learning instead of me doing all the talking.”

Studies have shown that exposure to the arts helps students’ brains develop and increases academic achievement.

The Oklahoma City school district found students in A+ schools outperformed other students who had similar demographic characteristics and academic histories.

At Hugh Goodwin Academy for the Arts in El Dorado, which uses the A+ model, in 2005 just 23 percent of its third and fourth grade students scored proficient in the state’s benchmark exams, while 36 percent scored proficient in math. Scores have risen every year – as they have elsewhere, including in non-A+ schools. By 2012, 82 percent of Hugh Goodwin’s students were scoring proficient in literacy and 88 percent in math. Statewide scores in 2011 were 79 percent in literacy and 83.6 percent in math.

Supporters say the model helps improve student behavior and discipline. According to Pike View principal Melanie Landrum, the school averaged four or five fights a week last year before it joined the Arkansas A+ Schools network. This school year, there were perhaps three during the first two months.

The A+ model borrows heavily from psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

According to Gardner, there are eight different kinds of “smart”: visual (art and design); linguistic (words); logical (reasoning, numbers); bodily or kinesthetic (movement and sports); musical; interpersonal (people skills); intrapersonal (self-reflection); and naturalistic (understanding nature).

At Pike View, where 94 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced price lunches, each student is evaluated to determine what type of learner they are so teachers can reach them more effectively. So are teachers.

According to April Rose, grades three through five instructional facilitator, “If I’m not a body-kinesthetic person and half my class is, I’ve got some work to do on me, on my execution of the lesson, or I will not meet them.”

Other participating schools are:

  • Parkers Chapel Middle School, El Dorado
  • KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy, Helena-West Helena
  • KIPP Delta College Preparatory Middle School, Helena-West Helena
  • KIPP Delta Collegiate High School, Helena-West Helena
  • KIPP Blytheville College Preparatory Middle School
  • Winthrop Rockefeller Elementary and Early Childhood Magnet School, Little Rock
  • Boone Park Elementary, North Little Rock
  • Cook Elementary, Fort Smith
  • Woods Elementary, Fort Smith
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