Learning through the Arts in Lexington's Catholic Schools

Article excerpt

Knights of Columbus McGivney grant helps Diocese of Lexington expand emphasis on arts in urban schools

As the superintendent and staff looked at the opportunities available to the students in Catholic schools within the Diocese of Lexington, the need was clear for more emphasis in the arts. We already had seen an abundance of research verifying the positive contribution of the arts to continued student success and achievement, and teachers were requesting assistance to better address teaching the arts in our schools.

We also learned from exit interviews and anecdotes that a significant number of parents opt out of Catholic schools each year because of their perception that their children would have more arts opportunities in the public school system, especially in band and other performance areas.

With our schools spread throughout the 50-county area of the diocese, we decided to concentrate on the cluster of schools located in the urban area around Lexington, the largest city within the diocese. We believed that teachers and administrators from the Lexington schools (including the only diocesan high school) could get together more readily for work sessions and other collaborative efforts, and that the schools would represent a wide variety of curricula and facilities. In addition, the regional elementary school in downtown Lexington just had undertaken a campaign to renovate its historic, pre-World War I building. The school plans a special emphasis on developing a fine arts wing, including an auditorium, so the project meshes well with an overall focus on enhanced learning through the arts at all our schools.

As the idea began to crystallize, we realized that our efforts to strengthen our urban Catholic schools matched the goals of the Father Michael McGivney Memorial Fund for New Initiatives in Catholic Education funded by the Knights of Columbus and administered through the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). Sister Bernadette McManigal, a sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the superintendent of schools at that time, and diocesan grant writer Jill Heink submitted a grant proposal that sought support to develop a program to enrich the educational experience of all our students through the arts and increase the appeal of our schools to more families.

Arts Consortium

Our first task after receiving the McGivney grant was to form a 21-member arts consortium consisting of participants from the Lexington area urban schools (four elementary schools and one high school), the new superintendent of schools and the grant writer for the diocese. Teachers in the arts areas as well as physical education, media, English and drama were included, along with parents and administrators. Sister Bernadette, the former superintendent, remains a member of the consortium.

The consortium members met several times over the summer break to articulate and plan the implementation process. Beth Ettensohn, a Lexington art teacher at one of the parish schools, with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the elementary, high school and college levels, accepted the job of consortium facilitator. As the first task, Ettensohn led the group in formulating mission, vision and philosophy statements for the consortium. These statements included the following components:

* Develop diocesan curriculum guidelines to improve existing arts programs and to integrate the arts into other content areas.

* Provide support and training for teachers.

* Promote the role of arts in enriching the Catholic school experience and deepening students' faith.

* Establish a collaborative relationship with local cultural organizations, higher educational institutions, and other diocesan committees.

* Advocate the important impact that the arts have on student's lives.

* Continue to assess and evaluate the progress through the diocesan consortium.

As the first months of the work proceeded, consortium activities included:

* Hosting of an arts-focus breakfast. Prior to the regularly scheduled diocesan in-service program, all teachers in the arts were invited to a presentation about the grant goals and objectives and to share their ideas and brainstorm ways of making the arts more viable in our schools. Many teachers had not met their counterparts at other schools, so the meeting also provided opportunity to introduce arts teachers to one another, compile a contact list and encourage networking.

* Surveying each of the participating schools in order to determine the status of arts programs. Consortium members had interviewed principals during the summer break and teachers completed surveys at the arts focus breakfast to provide more in-depth information about their subject areas. The surveys show the range of arts programs and events currently underway at our urban schools and indicate some of the challenges arts teachers face in the way of budget, space for working and performing, scheduling and training.

* Establishing guidelines for an arts advocacy committee in each of the participating schools. Each advocacy committee will be a small group of enthusiastic parents and teachers who will work to address the specific needs of their school through hands-on assistance, fundraising, public relations, maintaining an active dialog about the arts and any other identified areas. The consortium will initiate the process and assist the individual schools in meeting the needs that they identity. A member of the consortium also will be a representative on each arf s advocacy committee, providing communication between individual schools and the diocesan committee. All advocacy committees will be established by spring 2008.

Identifying Existing Resources

From discussions and survey results, the consortium realized that teachers in the urban area (and by extension, the wider school communities) were not aware of many of the arts events and performances that already are well established at the different urban schools. The consortium has started combining working meetings with attending student arts events.

For example, in November 2007, the consortium hosted another fine arts focus event in the visual art classroom at Lexington Catholic High School (LCHS). Teachers met for a light supper, heard updates about action items and offered feedback and more ideas. Many participants stayed after the session to attend the LCHS performance of the Greek tragedy "Medea" and were impressed by the high quality of the play in terms of acting as well as student efforts in technical details such as costumes, scenic design and stage/ sound direction. Several teachers also enjoyed seeing former students perform and congratulated them after the show.

On the younger end of the spectrum, members of the consortium attended the dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker," performed by all the first- and second-grade students (about 115 students) from Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary School on the stage at Lexington Catholic High School under the supervision of physical education teacher Amy Schenck.

Schenck observed, "How can we separate 'the arts' from any discipline? Every day in physical education I experience the art of movement and creative manipulation. Children thrive on imagination!" Now in its 10th year, this event is an excellent example of integrating the fine arts-in this case, classical music and dance movements-as part of the learning about health and fitness. The show fostered reading and speech as well, with different students speaking into the microphone to narrate the upcoming episode for the audience.

Finally, the event also is an example of how two schools can share resources to provide a challenging and fun experience for our youngest students. Needless to say, families and the entire school community enjoy the show, too.

The program enters a different stage in 2008. Our emphasis over the next several months is to:

* Engage the arts advocacy groups

* Develop curriculum maps for the arts

* Provide for better lines of communication between our schools

* Help teachers integrate the arts into their classrooms

* Provide training to help with successful implementation

We also hope that all the other schools throughout the Diocese of Lexington will be able to share the lessons learned and likewise enrich and strengthen their programs. Although there is much to be done, we are encouraged that the McGivney grant has provided the necessary momentum to move us ahead.

[Sidebar]

2008-2009 McGivney Grants Announced

McGivney grants honor Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus. Since the grant's inception, more than $2,000,000 has been distributed by NCEA on behalf of the Knights of Columbus.

In 2005, the Knights announced that for three years the focus of the grants would be on urban and inner-city Catholic schools. The following organizations and projects received funding in this, the last year of the urban and inner-city initiative:

* Diocese of Joliet Catholic schools-A Steady and Continuing Light

* Gesu Institute and Archdiocese of Philadelphia-Leaders in Urban Education

* NCEA-SPICE 2008: Design for Success: New Configuration for Catholic Schools

* NCEA-Strengthening Our Schools (SOS), Elementary and Secondary schools departments

* Diocese of Columbus-TUS: To Teach, Understand and Speak-Building Bridges to Spanish Speaking Families

* Diocese of Springfield-Unified Marketing Council for Springfield, Illinois, Catholic schools

Applications for the 2009-2010 funding cycle are due Friday, October 31. Application details are available online at www.ncea.org/about/McGivneyHome.asp.

Sister Bernadette McManigal, BVM, and Beth Ettensohn, arts consortium facilitator, prepared to greet participants at the Fine Arts Focus Breakfast in September 2007.

"We also learned...that a significant number of parents opt out of Catholic schools each year because of their perception that their children would have more arts opportunities inthe public school system, especially in band and other performance areas."

[Sidebar]

The Diocese of Lexington oversees a total of 17 Catholic schools within its borders, serving about 4,300 students. About 2,500 of those students are located within the Lexington urban area. The diocese includes one regional, diocesan high school, 13 parish-based elementary/middle schools pre K through 8 (except for two schools that do not offer seventh and eighth grade), one regional elementary school and two private schools operated by religious orders. All schools offer a solid academic curriculum and integrate Catholic values into every aspect of school life. As with most Catholic schools today, diocesan schools struggle to keep this Catholic education affordable for as many families as possible, while providing programs in technology, the arts and other specialty areas.

[Author Affiliation]

Jill Heink is the grant developer for the Diocese of Lexington, providing support in researching, writing and tracking proposals for all diocesan programs, including Catholic schools. Bill Farnau is the recently appointed superintendent of schools, providing leadership in the area of curriculum development in diocesan schools (bfarnau@cdlex.org).

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