FOCUS ON STUDENTS: Empowering Principals as School Arts Leaders is Key Strategy for Student Success

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To give students the best chance of fulfilling their potential, learning in and through the arts must be part of their education. It has never been more important that schools stand united by this common cause.

To achieve this, and provide children with the complete education they are entitled to, the aligned efforts of all are essential. Math, science, reading, social studies, health/fitness, and the arts must function together to effectively educate the “whole child”.

Yet principals across the country, with the best interests of students at heart, face many challenges as they try to meet this goal — shrinking budgets, competing priorities, a focus on high-stakes testing, and often a lack of understanding that the arts have positive long-term impacts on student success. However, it’s not uncommon to hear school principals say they’re disappointed with the quantity of arts in their schools. In Washington State, approximately 63 percent of principals expressed dissatisfaction with their school’s arts provision.

The Shifting Paradigm

Here’s the exciting news: things are changing and principals are leading the effort.

Principals are building and deepening their school’s arts programs – rather than cutting them – as a key strategy for student success. And what’s their motivation? A deep understanding of how music, visual arts, theatre and dance can reach and engage students. Leita Earl, principal of Rocky Ridge Elementary in Graham, Washington, recently participated alongside the young students in her school’s music program and noted:

“I’ve always wanted to play the violin, but [when I was a child] my family was so poor I wasn’t able to. I realized I am an artist, but I never really allowed myself to develop those skills.”

But even the most motivated principals still struggle with limited time and resources, or lack of direction on how to effectively incorporate arts into their curriculum. They need a roadmap.

In 2004, with these factors in mind, ArtsEd Washington embarked on a new concept designed to position principals as school arts leaders. Today, the Principals Arts Leadership (PAL) program is paving the way to catalyze a more systemic approach to arts education.

A Focus on Principals as School Arts Leaders

PAL was initially intended as a one-year planning support program for elementary school principals. But a successful pilot and positive resonance with principals propelled the program to its current three-year platform, including two years of supported plan implementation.

Customized arts leadership and planning tools were developed by incorporating feedback from early adopters and best practices from a sister organization in California.

PAL’s goal is to bring the needed support and resources to cultivate principals as effective instructional leaders in the arts who:
• Create and work with a school arts team to develop a sustainable annual arts plan
• Effectively guide expectations
• Maintain or develop powerful arts programming
• Ensure successful impacts on students and the community.

PAL principals and their teams (which may include teachers, arts specialists and parents) complete a visioning process, goal setting, and creation of a school Arts Plan and corresponding timeline.

A peer coaching model was recently integrated into the program, providing hands-on support and coaching for new participants from experienced PAL principals.

Principal Involvement Spans Long-Term

Happily, a large majority of schools maintain strong relationships with PAL, and ArtsEd Washington, after their cycle ends. This commitment is attributed to a set of firm guiding principles:
• Start with a catalytic spark and strong belief in the value of arts education
• Expand into concepts of dynamic, shared leadership
• Create systemic change through effective systems and tools – all leading to sustainable growth.

A 2009 study reinforced these philosophies and confirmed the principal’s pivotal role — their active leadership, participation and support — as key to the school’s success. PAL effectively changes the school’s culture and allows the work to take on a life of its own. Each plan is unique to that school’s assets and needs but most, if not all, have concentrated on developing internal school capacity to provide the arts. Priorities have included: increasing teacher training in the arts, adopting standards-aligned arts curriculum, and building parent and community understanding of the benefits of arts learning. In the process, the school achieves its ultimate goal of a self-sustaining program.

Significant Impacts

PAL’s results have been profound, with teachers and principals attributing positive areas of impact to their school’s amplified arts education activities, including:
• Increased engagement of both teachers and students
• Dramatically decreased behavioral issues
• Opportunity for equal participation regardless of physical, academic or emotional capacities.

Schools also report better community reach and involvement such as higher turnout at performances and arts events, greater classroom support/recruitment for arts-related projects, and increased response from PTAs, district staff, local businesses and artists.

Results at the Ground Level

What’s happening at PAL schools supports research on arts involvement, indicating:
• Consistently better outcomes for students
• Increased student understanding across multiple academic disciplines and overall school engagement
• Positive impacts to economically disadvantaged students
• Good results with “hard to reach” students (academically challenged, unmotivated, emotional/behavioral problems).

Several PAL schools have been publicly recognized for improvement in student achievement during or after their time in PAL, and the principals strongly felt that increased arts played a significant role. At Van Asselt Elementary, a diverse school in south Seattle, PAL principal ElDoris Turner says:

“The PAL program has provided us with a school-wide staff discourse and common language around the arts at our school. Students are more engaged in their subjects because the arts are giving them an outlet to be creative… the arts are paving the way for the school to build community, allowing students to showcase their creativity, as well as the chance to practice the thinking skills they need for the future.”

PAL program alumna, and recipient of five state-level awards, Shoreline, Washington’s Parkwood Elementary School principal Laura Ploudré says:

“We now have a sustainable program that is ours with tangible goals and outcomes, and an arts curriculum that is very goal driven, specific, and sustainable… the arts are helping us reach those students we weren’t reaching before, because we’re offering them different ways to function, communicate, and learn through the arts… we’re influencing the whole child.”

What’s Next?

The benefits in Western Washington schools over the past few years have been significant and program awareness, regionally and beyond, is growing. In May 2011, the Arts Education Partnership - whose research originally inspired the PAL concept - highlighted components of the PAL program in their national brochure “What School Leaders Can Do to Increase the Arts.”

The PAL model of long-term support and coaching gives principals the extra edge they seek via practical solutions, retention of critical arts education curriculum, and most importantly, the ability to embark upon sustainable and systemic change for the future. With this in mind, extending PAL to more schools statewide in Washington — and potentially expanding regionally and nationally — is the next major step for ArtsEd Washington.


-- Una McAlinden, Executive Director of ArtsEd Washington, has been honored with the Washington Art Educator Association Tribute Award, and The Advancement of Arts Education in Washington State Award. She has served on the Network Leadership Committee for the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network, including co-chairing its Advocacy Committee, and was a founding Board member of Leadership Eastside. She currently serves ex officio on the Board of the Washington State Arts Alliance.