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After cutting arts teachers, schools adjust to new normal in Lansing

Navy Hale Keiki School
Lansing elementary students lost their art and music specialists last year.

Last year, Lansing public school officials laid off all their elementary art and music teachers.

The move got national attention from outraged educators and arts groups.

Now, almost a year after the layoffs were announced, Lansing students and teachers are getting used to the new normal.

Teachers, kids learn to make do with less

At Willow Elementary in Lansing, both the kids and the teachers will tell you they love art class.

In Sharon Wilson's class, the rows of second graders are almost completely silent at their desks as they color in an outline of a mouse.

Wilson says there’s one student in particular who’s really taken to art this year: Jody.

Credit hannes.a.schwetz / http://www.flickr.com/photos/photokraft/2703184367/sizes/o/
Classroom teachers use lessons put together by the former art and music specialists.

Jody, Wilson says, doesn’t always have an easy time at school. Tantrums, anger, a tough time focusing. There was also “some trouble” at a previous elementary school.

But now, Wilson points out, he’s more focused, and you can see it in his art.

"My (coloring) used to be really sloppy, and out of the lines,” Jody says. “But then one day my paper was really, really nice.”

Jody says art is also helping him get a handle on his temper.

"I get mad too much, I throw a baby fit. I run out of the school."

So, what does he feel when he’s doing art projects?

"Concentrated. And confident,” Jody says, with words Wilson has just used to praise him in front of the class. “And, having fun.”  

The kids at Willow know that this year is different.

Now they do all their art, music, and physical education with their regular classroom teachers, instead of specialists.

The district also cut elementary teachers' planning periods.

But the teachers say, they're coping.

"No break has been harder," says one teacher. "At the end of the day, you're a little bit more tired. But its also funner, so it kind of balances it out."

"No break has been harder,” says third-grade teacher Deborah Fredericks.

“At the end of the day, you're a little bit more tired. But it's also funner, so it kind of balances it out."

Fredericks isn’t the only teacher who’s enjoying the chance to teach art and music.

A couple other classroom teachers say they’ve always seen art as an important part of their instruction, but now they say they get to put more emphasis on just enjoying those lessons with the kids.

Fredericks says what's really helped is that before the specialists left, they put together big binders with a year’s worth of art and music lessons for each teacher.

A few of the former specialists also work now as consultants for the district.

They come in a few times a year to model teaching methods for the other teachers.

Fredericks says she’s also learning a few guitar chords to teach the kids.

And she's watching YouTube videos to learn how to draw – all to make sure her kids aren't missing out.

Today’s lesson was about primary colors.

"I used blue, red, and yellow," says one student, showing a reporter his project.

"And what do we call those colors?” Fredericks asks.

A pregnant pause…and then: “Ambria, help him out,” says Fredericks. “What do we call those colors?”

"We call them…um…primary colors!"

Lessons from Lansing: "It is what it is." 

I asked three teachers what they would tell another district’s teachers or administrators, if that district was considering following Lansing’s example and cutting art, music and PE teachers.

Each of them said they feel bad for the teachers who lose their jobs.

But none of them came down hard on the “don’t do it” side.

You just have to adapt, says Fredericks.

"You know, it is what it is, and money issues are an issue not just for school districts but for 

"It is what it is, and money issues are an issue not just for school districts."

everyone right now. And we just need to make sure we do what's best for the kids." 

I asked Lansing's superintendent for an interview or comment about whether the changes are best for the kids.

She declined.

In general, though, district officials say cutting specialists was tough but necessary.

The district’s enrollment is dwindling.

State funding is down.

And a lot of Lansing kids come from low-income families, making it tough to get big donations from the parent community.

Plus, administrators point out, some of those arts and music specialists didn't have special training for those subjects.

National arts groups use Lansing as example of what not to do

There are, however, plenty of educators and arts advocates who strenuously argue that these cuts are directly hurting the kids.

"General classroom teachers can integrate music and art within their studies. But there are things missing," says Deb Mikula, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.

"General classroom teachers can integrate music and are...But there are things missing."

She says arts teachers’ entire focus and expertise are about getting kids to have rich experiences with art and music – not just squeezing it in before lunch.

Which is why she says Lansing now has a lousy reputation among national arts organizations.

At last year’s Americans for the Arts conference, Mikula says the chatter was all about Lansing’s cuts.

The district even came up in panel discussions, she says.

But at this summer’s conference, Mikula wants to start changing that image.  

"We want to say, ‘We're from Lansing! We're proud of it!’ And we really want to find a model that's going to work for the future.”

What that model looks like, Mikula says they still don't know.

But, she says, “There’s no going back.” What’s done is done, and it’s time to move forward, she says.

That will require more private funding to put more arts in the classroom or after school, says Mikula.

And she says it will now be on the community's shoulders – not just the school districts' – to get elementary kids a richer, fuller arts experience.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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