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Friday, 08 June 2012 18:35

Blended talent: GR Symphony proposes school emphasizing arts in education

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GRAND RAPIDS — After a decade of budget slashing in schools and arts groups, starting an arts-based school in Grand Rapids might not seem like a winning proposition, but it's exactly what Grand Rapids Symphony education director Claire VanBrandeghen plans to do.

In fall 2013, the symphony and its partners hope to welcome 1,800 pre-Kindergarten through fifth-grade students to the first arts school in the U.S. accredited by the International Baccalaureate (IB) committee.

Even more surprising: the idea has been a pretty easy sell, VanBrandeghen told MiBiz.

VanBrandeghen, a project partner and an IB expert, said she discovered three best practices for anyone looking to launch an innovative idea.

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In some ways, innovation follows the same trajectory as the learning experience itself.

Both are cumulative, creative endeavors that start with recalling and expanding existing knowledge and end with remixing information into something new — exactly the process arts school organizers began two years ago.

It all started when symphony staff met to discuss the implications of funding cuts on their programs.

"We were exploring how education programs fit into our core business," VanBrandeghen said. "Are our programs still relevant? Do we need to do something more or different to bridge this gap?"

Over time this conversation snowballed to include arts institutions, universities and philanthropists, including community organization such as St. Cecilia's Music Center, the Grand Rapids Arts Museum, Grand Valley State University and the Wege Foundation.

Each group brings knowledge and insight from its respective field to the table. VanBrandeghen, for instance, is well-versed in how arts exposure improves academic achievement.

"There are 30 years of data that support an arts-infused curriculum benefiting students," VanBrandeghen said. "We have all that data but we never seem to use (them) to keep those programs."

Nationally, school arts funding has steadily decreased while, proponents argue, the need for the skills they help students develop became increasingly indispensible.

Having lost a whopping $73 million in 10 years, Grand Rapids Public Schools is in the same boat.

At the same time, local unemployment hovers around 7 percent — something the city's dropout rate is unlikely to improve, especially for African-Americans and Hispanics, who make up 35 percent of Grand Rapids residents, 70 percent of GRPS students and 73 percent of last year's high school dropouts.

Even though evidence suggests arts makes us smarter, academic achievement leads to higher-paying jobs and great jobs make local economies thrive, West Michigan's arts groups and schools continue to lose funding.

Go with the flow

Of course none of this was new to VanBrandeghen or arts community members, but how they used their knowledge was. Instead of relying solely on study statistics to lobby legislators, the group searched for a different kind of solution — one it was already in-sync with.

They found what they were looking for at Grand Rapids City High-Middle School.

The shining star of the GRPS district, City High is accredited by International Baccalaureate (IB), an educational foundation known for academic rigor, global relevance and holism. And at City High, IB is "layered" with the sustainable living model philanthropist Peter Wege proposed in his 1998 book, Economicology: The Eleventh Commandment.

While City High blended IB and ecology and economics, VanBrandeghen said her group proposed to do the same with art, which was already part of the IB program.

But IB appeals to more left-brained types, too. GVSU grad Sean VanderMeulen teaches high school math, physics and chemistry at the American School of Yaoundé (ASOY) in the Republic of Cameroon.

As a member of the school's education committee, VanderMeulen spent the past year weighing the pros and cons of bringing to ASOY the IB program, "the fastest growing curriculum globally," VanderMeulen said.

VanderMeulen credited IB's success to an "authentic, inquiry-based" approach that allows students to learn by asking questions, a textbook teaching technique that he says doesn't always make it to the classroom.

It may mean extra paperwork for teachers, but the results are worth it, he said.

Think global...act global

According to VanderMeulen, IB students are well-rounded, prepared for college and have a global perspective — characteristics VanderMeulen, who student-taught in Greenville, would like to see more of stateside.

"Students in the U.S. tend to be quite insulated from the ways things are done abroad," said VanderMeulen, who lived in Senegal until high school. "IB definitely focuses on a multicultural, international view of the world. Considering the pace of globalization, it's more important than ever that our students be global citizens.

VanBrandeghen agreed.

"Our kids will be competing against kids from China and India, the U.K. and Australia. They have to know what (the world) is like," she said.

That said, embracing local diversity is already a critical value for the symphony school.

"We really want to benefit students who typically don't have access or participate in the arts currently," VanBrandeghen said. "I think that's really important in these really blended communities that we live in now."

The symphony is already including a broad spectrum of constituent groups in the planning process, even though they're still in the feasibility stage. The group enlisted LINC, a neighborhood revitalization group on the southwest side of Grand Rapids, to help solicit survey feedback from parents in Grand Rapids.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the arts-based IB school project is its ever-expanding inclusivity. What started as a staff conversation about the symphony's funding needs expanded beyond a single organization, or even the arts community, to include the city itself.

This will be the key to the project's ultimate success, VanBrandeghen said.

"That's exactly what we want for this project. If it's bigger than any one of our groups, it'll stand a chance of surviving," she said.

Read 1708 times Last modified on Wednesday, 22 August 2012 14:16

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