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September 23, 1997

Of Arts, Academics, and Racial Balance

by Nicole Youngman

Rebecca Lott leads a sing-a-long in Ms. Henkel's music class as part of the "arts infusion" at Old Shell Road Elementary School. Photo by L.D. Fletcher
Old Shell Road is an elementary school located in Midtown near the Dew Drop Inn. Founded in 1990, it teaches children in grades K-3 through a program known as "arts infusion" -- using music, dance, movement, drama and the visual arts to get academic concepts across. This method works with children's natural creativity and curiosity rather than stifling or channeling it into more traditional formats. Students might combine languages to put a folktale to music, or learn about addition and subtraction by exploring how certain colors can be combined to create new colors. Principal Rob Bearden states that regular education programs at this grade level tend to "program out" children's natural abilities to explore and manipulate their environment, and often don't even offer instruction in the arts until the fourth grade. While in some ways working through the arts can be seen as "stretching or bending the rules," Bearden points out that it also provides students with discipline, critical thinking skills, an appreciation for hard work, and an ability to recognize quality that carries over into academic life and future careers. Old Shell is also able to accommodate children with learning disabilities; the school has a full-time special education teacher who works with them and with their regular teachers. These special education specialists and teachers who specialize in the arts are paid by the county, while the rest of the teachers are paid by the state.

Old Shell's programs are continued for grades 4-8 at Dunbar, located on St. Anthony Street downtown. According to a brochure describing the magnet program, arts at Dunbar are given "a priority equal to other areas of Mobile County School System's curriculum...students are challenged to discover and develop their creative abilities through studies that integrate critical thinking with an exploration of literature, written composition, and oral communication." Students are offered advanced and special education courses and a wide variety of art and music programs, including strings, ballet, piano, folk dance, drama, and creative writing. The "Selected Groups" program provides further opportunities for students to dance, sing, and act in performances. Students are also able to attend performances by other groups in the Mobile community.

LeFlore High School in Crichton serves as both a regular community high school and as a magnet school; close to half its population is in the magnet program. The second offers a wide variety of courses of study, including 15 honors and advanced placement academic courses. Classes in the performing and creative arts include vocal music, band, piano, dance, visual arts such as drawing, painting, and photography, gymnastics, and theater. Students can also study television production, clothing design, public speaking, engineering drafting, and computer science, and take courses in Advanced Lifesaving and Emergency Medical Training.

The LeFlore facility boasts its own swimming pool, television station, photography lab, gymnastic center, computer center, and visual arts studio. Magnet School Assistant Principal Terri Butts explained proudly that "All these people working in the programs are practicing artists -- they are not people who say they teach art and then don't produce anything." Students frequently win college scholarships, and some have found that their college-level courses covered material they had already been taught at LeFlore. Like Bearden, Butts pointed out the correlation between programs in the arts and academic achievement: "Kids who are artists, who are very disciplined and who really love their art, tend to do better in school because they can apply that same discipline they use in the arts to their academic studies."

LeFlore recently had a chance to participate in a national program that is tracking how well the nation's arts programs are doing. In April the school was one of three randomly chosen in Alabama to participate in the National Assessment of Education Programs (NAEP), also known as "the Nation's Report Card." Butts stated that the school was "a pilot site to determine the baseline for assessment," and that 100 students were chosen at random from the Theater, Vocal Music, and Instrumental Music programs for the study. The students were video and audio taped for three days, and according to Butts, when the assessors were ready to leave, "they were just glowing with praise." She gives full credit not only to the students but also to the teachers who inspire them.

School Desegregation

Magnet programs such as Old Shell, Dunbar, and LeFlore were created not simply because someone thought offering these enhanced programs to the children of Mobile County would be a good idea, but in order to satisfy the Birdie Mae Davis Consent Decree of 1988 that seeks to achieve a racial balance in all of the system's schools. Rather than attempting desegregation through massive bussing of approximately 40,000 children across the county, an effort is being made to attract both white and black children to schools that have been in historically black neighborhoods. Thus the selection process that admits students to the magnet schools is a complicated one that must take into account not only the racial makeup of the magnet schools, but also that of the "sending schools" the students would normally attend.

For the purpose of the magnet school selection procedures, students are defined as "black" or "non-black," and system wide percentages of each are carefully monitored. According to Barton Academy, the school system's central administration, in 1994 48 percent of elementary school students, 49 percent of middle school students, and 47 percent of high school students were black. These numbers are then multiplied by 20 percent to calculate the 'permissible range" above or below which a sending school must not vary in order for an applicant to be accepted into the magnet school program. In 1994, the range for elementary schools was 39.4-57.6 percent black; for middle schools, 39.2-58.8 percent; and for high schools, 37.6-56.4 percent. Each student applying for admission to a magnet school in February is assigned a random number by a computer program, and numbers are then chosen at random to fill the slots available -- but if a student would upset the sending school's racial balance by leaving for the magnet school program, s/he cannot be selected. Thus a student who is of the majority race at their sending school would have a better chance of being allowed into a magnet school if their number were chosen by the computer than would a student of their school's minority race.

Painting the grass is only the first step for Preston Hinton in this new project for his second grade art class. Photo by L.D. Fletcher
Estimates on the difficulty of gaining entrance into the magnet program vary widely. While Randy Davis, Mobile County's Fine Arts Supervisor, states that "it's generally not that hard to get into the magnet program if you're serious about it," Rob Bearden at Old Shell states that it's easiest to get into his school at the kindergarten level, since most slots in the higher grades will be filled by returning students. Old Shell tends to send about 65 students a year to Dunbar (where they are automatically able to attend LeFlore).

Students who have siblings at the same magnet school are also given priority for admission, in an effort to mitigate the transportation difficulties parents often face in such a large county. While students can get to school at Dunbar or LeFlore via buses operated by the Mobile Transit Authority (for which their expenses are reimbursed) or regular school buses, such long rides and early mornings are not feasible for very young children, and parents must provide their own transportation. After-school programs are also available to help parents who must remain at work in the afternoons after school lets out.

Interestingly, while the other magnet schools have been largely successful at maintaining an even split between black and non-black students, LeFlore's magnet program is currently 90 percent black, a figure that has risen in recent years. Terri Butts suggests that this has more to do with the dynamics of high school than anything else: "We do attract white students who are very dedicated artists," she states. "You tend to go to the high school your friends go to, or where your parents went...High school is more of a family tradition rather than a choice." She says that students of different races work well together but don't socialize with one another on their own time as much as they could; after school, everyone goes home to their own neighborhoods.

Whatever the reason, the dilemma at LeFlore illustrates the complicated nature of trying to balance excellence in academics and the arts, racial equality, and transportation problems in the public school system. It is probably safe to say that everyone involved would like to see programs like those available at Old Shell, Dunbar, and LeFlore available to more students. Bearden suggests building another magnet elementary school similar to his in another part of Mobile west of I-65; Butts would like to see magnet programs of some sort created in all the area high schools, to increase competition and give parents and students more options to choose from. Increased funding, as always, would be helpful as well. While these schools were given startup grants to get their programs off the ground, they currently receive the same amount of funding and thus face the same funding difficulties as the rest of the school system, and must rely on helpful parents and fund-raising projects for additional money.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL1