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Some St. Paul schools fail to meet state law on teaching the arts

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Students do a group exercise on racism.
St. Paul middle school and high school students do a group exercise.
Caroline Yang for MPR News File

Several St. Paul schools are falling short of a state requirement for art instruction, according to new data out after a parent request.

The information shows that arts offerings in St. Paul vary widely by school. It also highlights a broader lack of information statewide on the subjects Minnesota students are being taught and how thoroughly each subject is covered.

In the spring of last year, St. Paul parent Michelle Wall requested information on the subjects taught by each elementary and middle school in the district. Wall was especially interested in subjects not covered by state tests, like health, gym and art.

She said reports of school budget cuts motivated the request. "It kind of raised the question ... how does St. Paul Public Schools know that kids are actually being taught the things that are required?" Wall said.

The preliminary results show that when it comes to art, many St. Paul schools fall short of a state standard. State law requires elementary and middle schools to offer at least three different kinds of art. That can include music, visual art, theater or dance. Thirteen St. Paul elementary and middle schools do not offer the mandated three areas.

For the most part, schools are more consistent with health education and gym. However, a few elementary schools report that one or the other is not taught.

Wall said she was surprised that St. Paul district officials didn't have the information she sought before she made her request.

"Having a well-rounded education is something that's set into state law and into district policy, and it comes down to the community and families holding school districts accountable for providing the instruction that is entitled to all kids," Wall said.

St. Paul Chief Academic Officer Kate Wilcox-Harris said the district is working to fill gaps the data uncovered.

District officials have posted the data online. The district says the information is still being finalized; four schools were not included in the preliminary report.

"We're adding staff where staff need to be added. We're adding professional development. But we also have to go case by case," Wilcox-Harris said.

She said St. Paul aims to give schools flexibility in how they meet requirements. For example, a type of art might be taught by a dedicated teacher, or it might be taught as part of other lessons by the classroom teacher. That means that in the data, an art "offering" doesn't always mean a separate class in the subject.

Parent Patricia Kelly paid close attention to that kind of distinction when she chose schools for her son, who graduated high school in St. Paul this year. Kelly also teaches orchestra in the Roseville school district. She said working art into other subjects — without a dedicated teacher — doesn't clear the bar.

"You cannot teach art without having the art basics," Kelly said. "You can't use art as an integrating tool if they don't know basics in the arts, and that is taught by arts specialists, not by general education teachers."

Statewide, though, St. Paul may not be unusual in either its offerings or its lack of data.

The state specifies academic standards students must meet, but it does not specify the courses schools must offer at each grade.

State education officials don't know exactly which subjects schools are teaching. The state Education Department has a system for collecting data on courses, but it only includes information from about half of districts. Local school boards are responsible for ensuring that offerings comply with the law.

Former state Sen. Steve Kelley, now with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, helped create the 2003 law that requires three types of art. Kelley said he and other legislators struggled just to get the requirement included alongside standards for subjects like reading and math.

"There was no discussion at that time about an enforcement mechanism," Kelley said.

Looking back, Kelley said more statewide enforcement would have pros and cons. It could help ensure more equal access for students. "But on the other hand, different districts have different cultures, and students have different needs, and you need that diversity and that variation from place to place," he said.