The interior of South Knoxville's Mooreland Heights Elementary looks like nothing out of the ordinary for a primary school: uniform rows of lockers, doors to numerous classrooms, a modest cafeteria and auditorium. The hallway walls boast the colorful patterns of student art projects that one also might expect. A closer look, however, shows these are different. Each has been labeled with a small plaque that lists prescribed academic standards the project has achieved. The goals relate not only to the arts, but to science, literature, math, and social studies.
These projects concentrate on creative problem-solving. The educational framework behind it is designed to change the traditional model in which students learn subjects separately from one another. It seeks to make the school's curriculum seamless from one discipline to another, via arts integration: using the arts as a foundation for teaching other subjects.
For the last four years, this small elementary school, with a population of around 300 students, has been experimenting with this new approach. The hallway art projects are but a small symbolic piece of Mooreland Heights' change over the past few years, which may serve as an example for how children learn in other Knox County elementary schools in the years to come.
"I knew nothing of arts integration," says Mooreland Heights Principal Roy Miller. "When we got into this, it was just a leap of faith."
This leap was necessitated by waning resources for arts education; school systems under financial strain have historically cut arts programs to preserve the core curriculum. This has left poorer schools with limited arts or music classes, even though some studies have found such classes enhance students' learning abilities. The arts-integration experiment in Knox County began with research by the Tennessee Arts Commission that showed growing public concern, from across the state, about the need for art education in schools.
In 2004 the Arts Commission began a year-long assessment of arts education in neighboring states. The study investigated the effects of programs that had shown measurable results in students' academic performance and behavior, along with faculty cohesion and retention. Focusing on two programs in North Carolina and South Carolina, the commission found that these programs, based on blending the arts into the core curriculum, had a pervasive and lasting effect. They also found a correlative effect of the programs within their surrounding communities, where demographics of the neighborhoods changed as families moved into these areas so their children could attend well-performing programs.
"Neither of the programs we looked at would really fit with the way our public education system in Tennessee is structured," says Kim Leavitt, educational director of the commission. In an attempt to shape an approach that could fit, Leavitt created the "Value Plus" program. With a five-year federal grant and local support from state Sen. Jamie Woodson, Leavitt presented funding for a new curriculum model for six elementary schools across the state that would experiment with arts integration.
Seeking federally designated Title I schools—those which operate with more than 50 percent free- and reduced-lunch programs, and a prescribed percentage of the students' families subsisting below the poverty line—the TAC selected Mooreland Heights Elementary as one of its beneficiaries.
The implementation of the Value Plus program, which started in 2006, was not without its obstacles. Existing district standards had to be balanced with the new integration model.
"I think one of the limitations we had here was that a new curriculum came out in the Knox County schools a couple years ago," says Miller. "They didn't want us to go out too far from this new series until we got our arms around it, so the first year we pretty much stayed in line with the curriculum series, and we have broadened ourselves from that over the last couple years."
Value Plus developed "Professional Learning Community" meetings, where teachers began with mandated Knox County educational standards and worked in tandem to build a coordinated lesson plan to achieve them. This plan relies not only on a change in the way teachers plan lessons, but also requires their cooperation with one another to achieve a cooperative goal.
"There was a paradigm shift in thinking within the practitioners, or the teachers, in this building," says Miller. "It's that methodological approach: looking at what we're doing, changing the methods of how we teach, and integrating the arts into the cores."
Mooreland Heights' art teacher Holly Briggs, who was awarded the Tennessee Arts Commission's Master Teacher of the Year Award in 2007, has found the implementation and cooperative effort inspiring.
"I feel that we've grown with the program," says Briggs. "Its hard to step out of your comfort zone when you are forced to work with others but we're so much more comfortable now. We've grown accustomed with what we're doing and it's just become second nature."
This social aspect also involves students' interactions. Value Plus focuses on group work rather than individual lessons. Working together, students learn to bounce ideas and insights off one another to cooperatively achieve assignment goals. The new interactive classroom environment has had a positive effect on students' social skills and critical thinking development. School suspensions are at all-time lows, while math, science, and reading scores have seen substantial improvements.
"Teachers would not buy into this if those gains and achievements were not there," says Miller. "It's a win/win and that's why I think the kids have really bought into this and the faculty has bought into it, but more than any stakeholders, the community."
Value Plus has seen considerable community involvement and volunteering. To expand on the arts focus, donations of material have supplied the school with plans for an outdoor amphitheater and performances have been given by the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra's string quartet.
The overall change has drawn Mooreland Heights considerable attention. The U.S. Department of Education has been conducting a three-year study, mining Mooreland Heights for academic data. A PBS film crew visited for two days to film a section for a documentary looking at the role of arts in education.
These accolades have led the TAC to spearhead an expansion to include four more Knox County elementary schools, assigning Mooreland Heights as the mentoring program. Leavitt hopes to fund the expansion through the development of another federal four-year grant, while also looking to various private sources.