At a school in Brooklyn, one such program teaches discipline, self-confidence, and creativity  

“Arts education isn’t something we add on after we’ve achieved other priorities like raising test scores and getting kids into college. It’s actually critical for achieving those priorities in the first place.”

That’s the view of First Lady Michelle Obama and the vast majority of secondary school principals. Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Education, arts education is often the first program cut for budgetary reasons, particularly in high-need communities. “It is deeply troubling that all students do not have access to arts education today,” says former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In 1999, 100 percent of school districts with a majority of free and reduced-price lunch students had music programs. Today, the figure stands at just 81 percent, he notes. And even if not cut completely, arts programs have been scaled back at disadvantaged schools, especially in urban areas.

But some schools, both in disadvantaged and wealthier neighborhoods, have stood firm in their support of the arts, with beneficial results for students. For example, consider the arts program at Junior High School 278 Marine Park, which is located in a middle-class, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.

The arts education initiative, which began in 2001 when Debra Garofalo became principal, has developed unusually strong programs in band, chorus, drama, and visual arts for its 933 students.

Plays and Novels-Coordinated Curriculum

Last year, students put on one dramatic play (The Outsiders) and one musical (Thoroughly Modern Millie). The arts program doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Garofalo notes. “We selected The Outsiders because it worked in collaboration with our seventh-grade English curriculum, which included the novel,” she says. In past years, students have performed Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird based on novels that also were part of the English curriculum. And the drama program isn’t just about acting, Garofalo says. Students learn how to use lighting and sound to help tell the story in a classroom converted to a “Black Box Theater.” Past musicals have included Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, Fame, and Guys and Dolls.

Bottle Caps and Bookmarks

The visual arts program inspires students to “create beautiful masterpieces using unexpected materials,” Garofalo says. “One of our newest creations is a bottle cap mural hanging in our art room, and we have begun to make one to hang in the library and the main lobby.” In addition, she says, students have created bookmarks and book covers in collaboration with English Language Arts teachers, and even made robots out of recycled materials. “We have elaborate murals done in magic marker which adorn our auditorium and hall of our building done by our young artists before school and during their lunch periods,” Garofalo notes.

Two Jazz Bands

The instrumental music program at Junior High School 278 Marine Park begins with sixth graders who generally have no prior playing experience. After a three-year sequence, eighth-grade students are performing high school-level music, Garofalo says. The band and chorus students perform three concerts a year and participate in both statewide and Northeast regional competitions annually. The school also has two jazz bands that meet each day an hour before their school day begins to teach students how to play this special form of music. “By having my music programs adjudicated, we can evaluate how effective these programs are,” she says.

Buy-in from Faculty

Successful arts programs aren’t just about the students. “Holding my arts teachers accountable for their discipline encourages them to do the same for their students. Arts classes are taught four days a week and treated like major subjects in my school. This is what makes our program unique in comparison to other schools where arts classes are considered ‘minor’ classes. We label these as our talent/enrichment classes,” Garofalo explains.

The Value Proposition

As a secondary school principal, Garofalo sees the inherent value of a robust arts program. Arts education at the secondary level helps students explore their passion for the arts and fosters creativity. “We have noticed that students who participate in the arts have excellent attendance, are often involved in many schoolwide activities, and excel academically,” she says.

The arts program also teaches students discipline. “Students always will work toward better performance and continue to dedicate themselves to their art form. We also have found that this dedication to the arts aligns with other subjects. If a student does poorly on a test, instead of giving up, they learn to work harder for the next assessment and improve their grade,” Garofalo explains.

This dedication also reinforces students’ self-esteem and confidence, Garofalo points out. “Nothing helps boost a child’s confidence like an auditorium filled with people applauding for you—nothing comes close.” 

The Musicians

The value of art education is not an abstract concept. Garofalo points to specific impacts on students, such as the case of an extremely talented trombone player who had reached a level of frustration with school and wanted to drop out of all extracurricular activities. “We refused to let him drop out of the band and encouraged him to continue using his talent to make others happy, including his family and friends. It was like a light switch had been turned on, and his level of participation and enthusiasm more than tripled!”

The bottom line for the trombonist: He became a lead soloist, an outstanding academic student, and got accepted into an arts-focused high school. While at high school, he began composing music and even conducted the band at several events. “Because of his success in both his junior high and high school classes, he was the first person in his family to go to college. He is currently studying music at Queens College and composing music,” Garofalo notes.

“Arts classes are taught four days a week and treated like major subjects in my school. This is what makes our program unique in comparison to other schools where arts classes are considered ‘minor’ classes.” — Debra Garofalo  

And then there’s the young flautist who had failed many classes in sixth and seventh grades and gotten into multiple scuffles. That student is currently the school’s lead piccolo player and, because of this honor, has improved dramatically in both her academics and her behavior, Garfalo says. “Since she is seen as a leader in our band class, she has gained the respect and friendship of her peers. She is on her way to becoming one of the top-performing students in her class academically.” 

The Actors

Garofalo also cites the success story involving a former student in the drama program who had a high level of absenteeism because of a general disinterest in school. After he was cast to play the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, he came out of his shell and stole the show, according to Garofalo. Since then, he has made several trips to California to pursue acting opportunities.

Another example: A special education student saw Garofalo wearing an Annie T-shirt and informed her that one day he would be on Broadway. “I discovered that he was not in our drama program and made an executive decision and changed his program. I watched him soar-academically and socially-as he went on to high school starring in productions,” Garfalo notes.

The bottom line, according to Garofalo, is this: Arts education doesn’t just teach students about the performing or visual arts; it teaches them about themselves. 

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership. 

Sidebar: Developing a Sense of Community

What makes the arts program at Junior High School 278 Marine Park so successful, according to Debra Garofalo, principal at Junior High School 278 Marine Park, is the involvement of community. “Fifteen years ago, I knew my vision had to include elementary school programs, so I hired staff to teach band to two local elementary schools and wrote the application for a VH1 Save the Music grant for the school instruments,” explains Garofalo.

The community has embraced the band by encouraging children to participate in both in-school programs and even in neighborhood performance groups, she notes.

Alumni have contributed to make the arts program “shine” by working with students to improve their skills. “The alumni take pride in what began in Marine Park and encourage our current students to think about their legacy and how they want to be remembered in our school when they graduate,” she says.

Sidebar: Making It Work

To implement a top-notch arts program, Garofalo advises principals to:

  • Begin with a vision, realizing that the arts have the power to change the lives of students. 
  • Hire skilled teachers who share your vision and passion. 
  • Be an active participant. Eight years ago, Garofalo took her first class to learn how to play alto saxophone with the sixth-grade band. The next year, she played with the seventh grade and finally made it to the eighth-grade band, where she currently plays every day that her schedule permits.
  • Attend rehearsals and performances as inspiration for students and to learn more about the arts program.