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Arts education to get more emphasis under Emanuel school plan

City Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel far right meets with Yo-Yo Macenter Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School as part an Arts

City of Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, far right, meets with Yo-Yo Ma,center, at Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School as part of an Arts Partner program for Chicago schools. | Photo by Brooke Collins~City of Chicago

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Updated: November 17, 2012 6:15AM

Chicago Public Schools would elevate the arts to the level of a “core subject” — with 120 minutes of dedicated weekly instruction for elementary students and “at least one certified, full-time employee” at every school, under a mayoral plan unveiled Monday.

For the first time, the number of art forms offered by CPS would be expanded to include visual art, music, dance and drama at all grade levels. High school graduation requirements would be modified to include all four.

One “certified, dedicated art instructor” for every 350 kids would give students a “comprehensive and sequential study of every art form from pre-K through 12th grade,” the plan states. In addition to its own dedicated art instructor, every school would be matched with at “least one arts partner” from the local community.

Ultimately, the city’s goal is to have every school maintain a minimum percentage of its budget for arts education. The funding floor, which has yet to be set, would be based on the school’s overall budget and per-pupil funding formula, officials said.

A former ballet dancer, Emanuel announced the plan at Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary School, 1241 W. 19th Street, flanked by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Chicago Lyric Opera star singer Renee Fleming.

The mayor noted that the extra time provided by his signature plan for a longer school day and year creates an opening for the arts, instead of forcing schools to choose between “math and music.”

Roughly 200 of the 477 teachers hired to staff the longer day are art teachers.

“Every child who learns early on music, it has a direct link to the development of their brain and their capacity on math and other types of abstract thinking,” Emanuel said.

“Investing in our children is absolutely the right choice for the future of this city. And for a cultural center like Chicago — its architecture, its music, its theater, its film, its dance — to not have the basics in our neighborhoods and in our schools is a big hole. And that hole just got filled.”

He added, “Our neighborhood theater groups, our neighborhood arts groups — rather than have a door closed to them at the school, that door will be swung wide open.”

CPS currently has 1,100 dedicated art teachers. But the quality of arts programs varies widely, with “oases and deserts” depending on the school, the plan states.

That’s even though researchers have concluded that access to the arts engages students, stimulates creativity and critical thinking, reduces high school dropout rates and makes students more likely to graduate college and nail down good jobs.

Asked when the plan will take effect, a mayoral spokeswoman said: “The plan lays out goals over the period of multiple years, and CPS will begin working towards the stated goals in the coming months.”

School Board President David Vitale acknowledged CPS has “not always done a great job with respect to the arts.” He got a first-hand look earlier this year at how CPS faltered.

“My daughter [who attends a CPS high school] came to me and said, ‘I’d like to take a drama course to fulfill one of my arts requirements in high school. And she said, ‘Drama doesn’t count as an art course.’ Somewhat shocking. I’ve got to tell you, the new arts plan is gonna fix that problem,” he said.

“It’s just a small example of some of the things that have gotten embedded in the way we run things that really do need significant change.”

Yo-Yo Ma, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s creative consultant, was beaming throughout the news conference.

“You can’t have a future that you can’t imagine. That’s what the arts do. It’s right in the middle of what the essential work of education is, which is to give our children a sense of collaborativeness, flexibility, imagination and innovation,” the cellist said.

“What an incredible thrill it is to be here today and see the convergence of so many factors that are bringing the arts plan and the cultural plan together. . . It’s the work of top-down, grass roots, down-up. It’s government at work in the best sense: cultural institutions that collaborate together, the Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera, CPS, Teachers Union, mayor. Congratulations, sir. And floaters like Renee. . .and me are so excited to be part of this energy that is floating up.”

The CPS Arts Education Plan is an off-shoot of the new citywide cultural plan created to flesh out Emanuel’s vision of creating an Uptown Music district and the “cultural hubs” touted in his transition plan.

The plan includes creating a new Museum Campus South that links the Museum of Science and Industry and DuSable Museum of African American History and making foreclosed properties available for cultural purposes.

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