Arts used as tool to improve graduation rate

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ninety-six percent of students enrolled in the National Center for Arts & Technology at Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corporation graduate from high school, and 89 percent go on to higher education.

Based on the Pittsburgh model, the Arts & Science Council in Charlotte has teamed with Mecklenburg County and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to launch Studio 345, a free after-school program that aims to improve the graduation rate in the county by incorporating the arts in a studio setting into all subjects in the curriculum.

The program aims this school year to enroll at least 100 high school students in the county, where two-thirds of students are at risk of dropping out.

“We believe the arts can motivate students, open the door for students in ways that traditional classroom discussion doesn’t always do,” says Barbara Ann Temple, vice president for education at the Arts & Science Council.

At two studios it has set up at Spirit Square, including one for digital photography and one for digital media art, the Arts & Science Council will be providing four 10-week courses three times a year.

Each course meets two days a week from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and students also meet during those hours on Fridays, either to work on their own studio projects, visit the other studio classes to see what their peers are doing, or visit with artists and see exhibits at locales like McColl Center for Visual Art.

Mecklenburg County is investing $350,000 in the program this fiscal year, and the Arts & Science Council is raising $350,000 from private sources, and already has secured $150,000 in verbal commitments, says Krista Terrell, vice president for public relations and communications.

The Council also has reserved 15 spots for clients of the the juvenile court system and 20 spots for students from West Charlotte High School, a school in Project L.I.F.T., an effort that aims to raise $55 million in private funds to improve schools in West Charlotte. And the Charlotte Area Transit System will provide transportation vouchers for students to travel from their high school to Spirit Square.

Temple says the Arts & Science Council began meeting last spring with guidance counselors at every high school and middle school in the county, and with Communities in Schools of Mecklenburg County, to identify at-risk students who might benefit from the program.

And in September, she and 12 other Studio 345 representatives visited all 20 high schools during lunch to distribute brochures about the program and talk to students.

Nearly 100 students attended an orientation session on September 20, and the program received nearly 130 requests to enroll.

“The studio approach to learning completely turns its back to a factory approach to learning” that is based on a measuring students by standardized, multiple-choice tests, says Temple, who joined the agency a year ago after working for 18 years for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a high school English teacher, national board specialist, and director of teacher professional development.

In 2007, while working for the school system, she received a doctorate from UNC-Charlotte in urban education, with an emphasis on literacy writing, and wrote her dissertation on creating studios of literacy learning through the arts.

She also is inviting teachers to observe the Studio 345 classes, and will be offering courses for teachers from “any classroom, any grade, any subject” that will “show them how they can transform their classrooms into studios of learning.”

Studio 345, she says, “will provide an opportunity for kids to have experiential learning opportunities in the arts, science, history and other subjects integrated within the curriculum.”

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