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September 23, 1997

Art in Alabama Gulf Coast Schools

by Turner Rogers

Fortunately, opportunities to engage in visual arts experiences in Mobile and Baldwin County schools are on the rise. Twenty years ago, there were no art specialists in the elementary schools, other than an occasional class presented by a volunteer or a part-time, usually untrained, teacher funded by a school's PTA. Few elementary classroom teachers presented art experiences on a regular basis, even though the state mandates that children receive such instruction. Middle schools, although philosophically committed to providing a selection of engaging elective courses, often lacked visual arts teachers. Most Mobile County high schools offered art courses, but over the next few years, many high schools, such as Murphy, Shaw and Rain phased out their art programs. Some of the middle schools, alarmed that so many students had poor academic skills, did the same in order to place even more emphasis on the things that frustrated failing students the most. These were the very students who desperately needed a reason to feel good about themselves and their schools.

Something interesting happened over in Baldwin County in the middle of 1980s. Only two of the Baldwin County high schools had art teachers when the four high schools principals decided among themselves that if one school had a program, all four of them should have a similar program. At their insistence, art teachers were hired at the other two schools and then at Daphne High School when it opened. More recently, a half-credit in the fine arts has been added to high school graduation requirements in the state of Alabama.

When schools opened this year, Theodore High School had added a second art teacher, and some other Mobile County high schools had visual arts courses available for the first time in many years. Where art courses have been available their popularity has grown to the point that students are turned away for lack of a sufficient number of sections while art teachers struggle with over-crowded rooms. Art teachers are often frustrated that a lack of space and materials limit the kinds and quality of art experiences they may offer.

Although the middle school years are crucial times for developing abilities and appreciation in art, not all of the middle schools in our area have art courses for students to elect. Recently some art teachers have even been replaced with additional reading teachers in an effort to shore up reading performance. These schools' administrators should take a good look at the role all of the arts play in increasing self-concept, self-acceptance and academic skills. Academic performance and scores rise when the arts play a critical role in the schools.

The greatest need in our area schools' art programs, however, is at the elementary level. The process of developing artistic skills and aesthetic sensibility must begin early, preparing young students for more advanced work in the middle schools and high schools. Secondary students who do have the opportunity -- and the courage, after years of neglect -- to elect art, often begin with art skills and understanding frozen at the first and second grade level. The encouraging news is that just four years ago, elementary art specialists were extremely rare in our gulf coast counties. Now there is at least a full-time art specialist at Old Shell Road School (a magnet school for the arts). Five other art specialists in Mobile County each visit up to ten or more elementary schools during an academic year. These art teachers have time enough only for providing perhaps eight art experiences to some students while excluding others. It is left to the classroom teachers to provide the required exposure to art during the weeks and months that an art teacher is not available. Relatively few of them take the time to cover this important area.

The Baldwin County school system also has five elementary art teachers. With fewer schools to cover, these teachers are able to remain in each school for a semester and present a more complete program than their Mobile County counterparts. However, all Escambia County, Florida, elementary students have an art teacher visit their class each week, all year long. What a difference a state line makes.

With all the evidence of a greater commitment to art programs in our schools, we remain far behind other states in the southeast, and behind several school districts in the state of Alabama. Elementary students need regular exposure to and training in art studio, art history and aesthetics. Our schools do not approach providing the level of exposure enjoyed by students in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. In order to give our students what others take for granted, Mobile and Baldwin county school systems must continue to phase in art specialists until students in all elementary grade levels have appropriate art classes each week.

Middle schools must also increase the number of art specialists until all middle school students take an exploratory class, and those who wish to pursue art may take a more advanced course. All high school students must now take, at a minimum, a half-credit fine arts course, graduation requirements will require additional elective credits for a majority and a number of students will need advanced art classes in order to pursue art and art-related careers. Visual arts teachers will be hard-pressed to meet the increased demand without an increase in the number of art faculty. Larger schools will probably need two or more art teachers, along with classrooms sizable enough to deal with large classes engaged in a variety of art processes.

Art is for everyone. It improves the quality of lives by increasing the level of aesthetic enjoyment, by preventing options for utilizing increased leisure time, and by playing a role in improving our environment. The gulf coast of Alabama is an area rich with culture and visual art tradition. We do a disservice to future generations if we do not insure that these traditions are passed on and broadened. In my view, our area schools are doing a better job of this than ever before. It is my hope that this trend continues.

Turner Rogers, Ed.D., is associate professor of art education, University of South Alabama

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL