Readin', Writin', Rhythm

TWO YEARS AGO CHARLES R. BUGG Elementary in Raleigh, N.C., was a school in trouble. Test scores were below the county average, and there was little parental involvement. But now the school sings-literally. In a science class, students grasp the vastness of space by listening to Gustav Holst's symphonic suite "The Planets." Third graders studying language arts create original poems with a writer-in-residence and learn how to choreograph a dance to go with their verses. In music class, pupils learn about fractions as they study whole, half and quarter notes.

Bugg Elementary is one of 27 schools in North Carolina experimenting with ways of using the arts to improve basic skills. It's too soon to make any definitive judgments about whether the four-year pilot program, begun in the 1995-96 school year, will boost reading and math scores. But school officials say there's already plenty of evidence that integrating music and poetry into the curriculum stimulates kids' interest in other subjects. "Attendance is up and behavior problems are down," says Jim Fatata, principal of the Bugg school.

North Carolina isn't the only state taking a second look at the arts. Districts around the country are beginning to restore programs once eliminated as "luxuries" by financially strapped educators. According to a survey by the National Art Education Association, 28 states now require some arts study before high-school graduation, compared with only two in 1980. Even big urban systems are re-evaluating the arts. In Los Angeles the school board recently approved a motion to provide elementary-school students access to music lessons at least once a week. And New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is pushing to bring art and music classes to all of his city's public schools.

Some of the renewed interest in these subjects grows out of research that shows kids learn best when they are exposed to a wide range of disciplines; that means art and music as well as reading and science. There's even some evidence that learning music can stimulate development of critical areas of the brain. One recent study of 78 preschoolers in California, for example, found that individual piano lessons did a better job of improving abstract reasoning skills than computer instruction.

Another inspiration for including the arts is the work of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. His 1983 book, "Frames of Mind," designated musical ability as one of seven distinct forms of intelligence (others include logical-mathematical, linguistic and interpersonal). Educators influenced by Gardner have set up schools around the country that use music and other arts to improve overall learning. "If you look at most conceptions of intelligence, they focus on language or logic," Gardner says. "How could you explain great dancing or sculpting with that?" While he believes in teaching the arts for their own sake, Gardner also says that there are other benefits. In music classes, for example, kids learn math by studying rhythm and can improve interpersonal skills through participation in a band or orchestra.

Not every district, of course, abandoned the arts. Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary in Charleston, S.C., opened its doors in 1986. Just a few years later, it ranked way above the state average in standardized testing; scores have stayed high since then. At PS 314 in Brooklyn, N.Y., students attend dress rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera and then use the plots and settings to help learn other subjects, like history (after watching "Aida") or literature (after "Faust"). Students are also creating their own operas-writing librettos, building sets, composing music. Since the collaboration started, in 1989, test scores have improved enough to remove PS 314 from the state's list of worst-performing schools.

Even with many more success stories like these, restoring the arts to public schools won't be easy. A nationwide survey of schools by The Instrumentalist, a music-industry trade journal, found that half of the money for music programs came from outside fund raising, often by parents. That effort is, of course, much more difficult in poorer communities. "The real concern is we're going to end up with a cultural caste system where only the rich can afford access to music education," says John Mahlman, executive director of the Music Educators National Conference.

That would be a sad note indeed. Consider the testimony of Aileen Chou, a fifth grader at PS 314. After a recent visit to the Met, she pronounced Charles Gounod's "Faust" her favorite opera because it was "cool." Is there any higher praise?