Years ago, Massillonite and well-known Renaissance man Wilbur Arnold had an epiphany of sorts. Arnold, known throughout the region for his tenure as the president of Massillon’s Football Booster Club the year that a live tiger first served as the team’s mascot, among many other accomplishments—had dedicated the latter part of his career to curriculum development and research for the armed forces. Upon returning home to Massillon, he set his sights on doing something meaningful for local children.
He began a study of the top 100 leaders of the modern age—presidents, politicians, inventors, scientists, and their ilk—investigating the backgrounds of each and systematically plotting out the attributes and experiences of each, looking for trends. What he discovered was that 95 out of the 100 surveyed had a major influence involving the arts during their formative, “growing up” years.
He had returned home with his sights set on doing something for the children of Massillon. But what he couldn’t yet have realized were the larger ramifications of his discovery, and the program that would be born of his hypothesis: that there is a direct correlation between leadership qualities and exposure to the fine arts early in life.
In 2007, under Arnold’s guidance, the Artful Living program was born through a collaboration between the Massillon Museum and Massillon City Schools. The program believes that immersion in the arts in preschool stimulates creativity and leadership that lead to improved academic achievement. And they’ve set out to prove it.
The program is brilliant in it’s relative simplicity: professional fine arts instructors come into preschool classrooms each day from October to May to present an arts-integrated, standards-based lesson to four- and five-year-olds.
A Day At Artful Living
I was invited to such a classroom by Arftul Living director Chris Craft and coordinator Marti Livingstone to observe motion and music activities via standards-based educational lessons. First, Karen Dhyanchand led the students in a series of musical pursuits, from a “steady beats” lesson that enhances reading skills, to a sing-along storybook reading that results in identifying numbers verbally and visually in a creative way.
Next up was a lesson with Julie Grasse from the Canton Ballet, who led the children through movement and dance activities. The seemingly tireless youngsters then moved onto more structured activities. During this lesson, the students dance throughout the room to a song that teaches everything from safety awareness to fine motor skills.
Watching the class, two things struck me—first, not a single child in the room seemed aware of the cadre of observers watching them, they were too engrossed in the lesson (which, let’s be honest, is quite the feat in and of itself). But second, the program isn’t just for the children.
Artful Living also improves the school readiness of children by enhancing the knowledge and experience of their preschool teachers. The teachers gain valuable content by observing the arts providers. The program helps teachers teach more creatively and teach for creativity. Something that benefits not just the class I audited, but the many classes and groups of children yet to come.
OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What’s more, the benefits to this program aren’t restricted to the classroom alone.
“Parents, and especially urban parents, are participating in arts organization events like never before,” explained program consultant Gail Martino. “We believe there was a whole slice of the population that didn’t think these programs were for them. It’s an exciting residual benefit.”
Many children and their families, especially underserved populations, who might not otherwise be exposed to the experience of art in its many forms, will experience all of this and more. Parents and other family members are more likely to support the arts activities, which again, has direct, immediate effects, but the parental involvement in the arts also means the potential for long-term positive effects on the younger siblings before they themselves enter school. In general, parents of the children in the program have many opportunities to become more involved with their children’s education and with the community’s arts initiatives.
Today, 39 preschool classes—approximately 1,000 children—are in the Artful Living program in Massillon City Schools, Canton City Schools and the schools that are part of the Stark County integrated preschool program, managed by the Stark County Educational Service Center. The kids enjoy the program, the teachers are expanding what creativity means in the curriculum, and Artful Living is fostering an appreciation for the arts in the community anecdotely, but do the arts truly make for smarter kids? At last, we arrive at the truly extraordinary part of the story!
According to program research, students are more engaged in their learning when the arts are incorporated. Higher engagement equals higher achievement. But what about the tangible results? Program administrators conducted a blind evaluation from 2012 to 2013, seeking affirmation of their simple hypothesis: Students who had participated in the Artful Living program will experience significant gains in achievement and creativity compared with those students who had not participated in the program. Using the Young Children’s Achievement Test (YCAT) and the Thinking Creatively in Action and Movement (TCAM), the program selected a random sampling of the preschool participants versus a control group of students in an adjoining, demographically similar Stark County district who had not participated in the program. They tested both sets of students prior to beginning the school year, and the same students again at the conclusion.
Simply put, the findings were extraordinary.
“I kept saying ‘This can’t be right, this can’t be right!’ I would go back and recheck an entire testing document to be sure,” said Martino, who administered the test.
The findings show that, on both tests administered, the students who had participated in Artful Living performed higher, and in many cases, significantly higher. In subtests such as originality and imagination, that makes sense. But they also outperformed in math, writing and reading and four other areas.
These impressive results have garnered great interest, not just from the community, but from grant making entities. In fact, the Allen Elementary demonstration was designed as a dog and pony for PNC Bank, which has invested $213,000 in funding the Artful Living program as part of its “Grow Up Great” initiative, that has invested $350 million since 2004 to help prepare young children for success.
“Kindergarten readiness is the foundation of the health of our children, their families and ultimately, our local economy. Preparing our young children for their first day of school helps them learn to grow up to be our future leaders, innovators and employees,” explained Kevin Thompson, the regional president for PNC in Akron, Canton and Wooster. Other support for the program has come from the Ohio Arts Council, Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, Stark Community Foundation, ArtsinStark and of course, the Massillon Museum, which administers the program in conjunction with the Stark County Educational Service Center.
While there are many programs that offer arts immersion nationwide, Martino can’t find a single one that connects directly to early learning standards, what the state says is required for preschoolers. She’s at work now on the latest testing (conducted every other year), which will include a wider sampling. Each school or system starts with just one arts lesson a week, and the goal is to grow each class to four lessons each week, as is the case in Massillon, where the program is in its eighth year.
“My role is to look for funding to add more classes, but in the coming years, we would like to see the program expanded into more grade levels—to move the program into kindergarten, first and second grade,” said Martino.
She is careful to clarify that Artful Living doesn’t seek to displace existing arts instruction, or jeopardize teachers in those areas. “Many of the schools have visual arts in primary school, but they don’t have drama or dance. We want to fill the holes in the arts instruction to supplement education,” Martino.
If the program duration extended through second grade, it would theoretically provide even greater support of the hypothesis, as children could be measured based on the state reading expectations that begin in third grade. Beyond local growth, the Artful Living staff has set its sights on even bigger fish—creating a replicable model that could be used as a roadmap for any school district in the country. The skeptic in me has to ask: What if this program’s success is fueled by some external influence? What if there’s just something in the water here?
“Every community is different, and so, yes, there is ‘something in the water here’—our vast community of arts initiatives. Anyone who wants to implement this program has to look at their own community and the resources available, in it,” said Martino.
I’m sorry to say that Mr. Arnold passed away in 2010, but he was able to see the beginning of his idea come to life. I think he’d be pleased to discover that his vision, teamed with the hard work of program staff and support from forward thinking funders, might, in fact, prove to put Stark County and the Artful Living program on the map as the model for early learning arts immersion nationwide.