From the Orlando Sentinel
by Scott Maxwell
Judging solely by the statistics, students at Fern Creek Elementary School should be struggling.
Twenty percent of them are homeless. More than 80 percent receive free or reduced–price lunches.
Yet when FCAT scores came back last week, they were sky-high — with 84 percent of third-graders scoring at grade level or higher on reading and 86 percent for math.
Though some schools have cut arts and music programs in the face of budget woes, Principal Patrick Galatowitsch has kept his cultural offerings at full strength.
And the result of mixing violins and water colors with multiplication tables and vocabulary lists speaks for itself.
Young minds, you see, are like sponges. And when you wet them with just a bit of knowledge, they become thirsty for more.
“There’s very scientific evidence behind all this,” said Mary Beth Perkins, the art teacher at Fern Creek who has children sculpting with old tire pieces and creating mosaics with unused stickers.”It hits a part of their brain that just connects. And things come alive.”
Sometimes the sparks are obvious.
Patterns in an arpeggio have similarities to sequences in math. Unique color names enhance vocabulary. A student moved by the music of “Les Miserables” suddenly wants to know more about the French Revolution.
But the arts can also improve a student’s entire outlook on life.
Just ask Kara Herbert. Her music class at Fern Creek is a vibrant and happy place, full of steel drums, xylophones and conga drums. Third-graders play violins. First-graders dance.
And Herbert has seen students’ confidence skyrocket after they master an instrument they had previously eyed from afar.
“Learning music helps them in so many ways,” she said. “In general, it makes them more well-rounded students.”
National studies say students involved in the arts have higher self-esteem, are more involved in their communities and often do better on everything from SAT scores to critical analysis … as Fern Creek’s FCAT scores reflect.
Galatowitsch beamed when he looked down at the scores he had just received Thursday morning. But he stressed that educating kids is about more than teaching them to pencil in the right bubbles.
“We’re preparing children for life,” he said. “And to prepare them for life, we need to expose them to all that is wonderful about the world.”
It’s not always easy.
Florida schools are already funded below the national average. So the teachers at Fern Creek work hard to provide their 320 students many of the things that lawmakers in Tallahassee do not.
They work with nonprofits such as A Gift for Teaching. They coordinate with students at the University of Central Florida and artistic scholars at Rollins. Local dance troupes, such as Voci Dance, introduce the kids to movement classes they might never otherwise experience.
“The community support we have for the arts is incredible,” Galatowitsch said. “And our school staff and teachers work above and beyond, uncompensated, to ensure that our students have these opportunities.”
That’s why it galls this overachieving principal when he hears politicians poor-mouthing teachers — and trying to further gut the state’s underfunded school system.
This year, Gov. Rick Scott proposed a record-breaking $3 billion hit to Florida schools.
The Republican-led Legislature wanted to take $1.35 billion.
They settled on the latter, slicing an additional $542 per student from an already strapped system.
After approving the cuts, Scott then had the gall to stage a media event Thursday where he unveiled a new slogan: “Less waste. More for education.”
Galatowitsch simply couldn’t comprehend.
But by Tuesday, he and the rest of the staff at Fern Creek won’t be fretting about Tallahassee. They’ll be back on their tiny campus just north of downtown Orlando focused on their needy students … and budding artists.
The kids may even get back the pieces of art they recently displayed at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
“These kids were just so excited,” Perkins recalled of the night their museum show opened. “They felt like real artists.”
Because they were.
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