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School arts = higher scores

Singing to better scores

School districts that participated in the arts program

• Carlsbad Unified

• Escondido Union

• Fallbrook Union Elementary

• Julian Union

• Oceanside Unified

• Ramona Unified

• San Marcos Unified

• Valley Center-Pauma Unified

• Vista Unified

• Warner Unified

North County third graders who had the arts integrated into their regular curriculum showed remarkable improvement on standardized test scores, researchers announced Thursday.

The Developing Reading Education with Arts Methods, or DREAM, program is in its third year of operation in 10 school districts, funded by a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and led by California State University San Marcos and the San Diego County Office of Education.

It trains third- and fourth-grade teachers to integrate the arts into their lessons and sends artists into the classroom to provide weekly coaching.

At an event Thursday, officials announced their findings, including what they described as an “astonishing” 87-point average gain on the state standardized reading test for third graders in 2010-11.

“By using everything from performance to puppetry, CSUSM faculty helped local elementary school teachers create lessons to boost reading,” said CSUSM President Karen Haynes. “The results are why we are all here today. Standardized test scores for students in the program improved nearly 90 points in just two years … Clearly, using theater to teach literacy is an especially effective tool and one that deserves continued exploration.”

Hector DeLeon, who teaches fourth grade at the Vista Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, is one of the 123 teachers who participated along with 1,000 students.

“We’ve learned how to teach the same fourth-grade subjects, but with an arts infusion or twist,” DeLeon told an audience of educators, parents and others at the North County Regional Education Center in San Marcos.

He explained how his class is learning about the Jazz Age, including its vocabulary. Previously, he said, the method was “memorize on Monday, spit them out on Friday.”

Now, he said, his method is: “Let’s sing them, let’s act them out, let’s put them to movement.”

Shortly afterward, his students emerged to demonstrate. Holding hand-lettered signs bearing vocabulary words, they swayed and danced to jazz music.

“Art is just another way to make sense of the world,” said Laurie Stowell, a professor of literacy education at CSUSM, “and that’s what reading and writing is about …”

“When they’re doing theater arts, they’re having to make meaning of the story,” she added later. “They’re doing it. They’re not just looking at words on a page.”

Stowell and others stressed that whether lessons are taught through puppetry, miming, acting, dancing or other arts activities, students are more likely to be engaged and retain what they learn.

“Those jazz descriptors will remain with them forever,” said Joyce Bales, superintendent of the Vista Unified School District, of DeLeon’s students. “They will know what jazz is.”

Researchers randomly divided teachers and their students into three groups. In the control group, teachers got no arts training. In a second, they attended a one-week summer institute on incorporating the arts. The third group attended the institute and received weekly in-class coaching from an arts professional.

The first group of third-graders saw student scores rise by 25 points on the standardized test in 2010-11. The second saw increases of 42 points and the third group had the 87-point average increase on the test, which is scored from 150 to 600.

“That’s more than three times the control group,” said Patti Saraniero, the independent program evaluator hired by the county Office of Education to gather and analyze all the data, which is then reported to the Department of Education. “And the lowest performing kids made the most dramatic gains.”

Researchers and others — including Clifton Jones of the U.S. Department of Education, who attended the event — said other studies have shown that integrating the arts is beneficial on other learning.

“I would say we knew that arts make a difference in student achievement,” said Brenda Hall of the county Office of Education and a co-director of the project, “but it’s rewarding and validating to see it show up in the test scores in such a significant way.”

Merryl Goldberg, a professor of visual and performing arts at CSUSM is the other co-director of the project.

“It’s not a fluke. We did this in 10 schools,” she said. “These are the test scores. It’s a shame the kids in the control group didn’t get the 90 points.”

In a addition to the empirical measure, there is anecdotal evidence of success.

“Some schools don’t have what kids need to enjoy school,” said Jordan Zavala, 9, one of the Vista students. “I used to have a hard time reading, but since I’ve been in Mr. DeLeon’s class I’ve done better because we act out what we learn. It’s really been fun.”

Copyright © 2016, The San Diego Union-Tribune