Oregon Public Broadcasting

Schools are just beginning a new academic year, and some teachers will be welcoming new colleagues onboard. A new arts tax in Portland will affect elementary schools in the district by providing new arts teachers.

While this expansion is new this fall, Jackson Middle School in Southwest Portland has been integrating art into reading, writing and arithmetic for years.

In one colorful classroom, the students are all focused working on their assignment -- creating a junk sculpture.

Kylie Lewis is a seventh grader -- she's been drilling and nailing pieces together for her junk sculpture cat for about a week. She has been learning to use certain tools for the first time.

"I am using a drill, so I can attach little feathers to the cat to make it have hair and look like a cat. And we have saws, and hammers, and just a bunch of stuff you would use like nails and stuff," Lewis said.

At Jackson Middle School, the arts permeate every subject a student takes. The school follows the Bernstein Artful Learning Model. This national program connects disciplines through the arts, and allows students to use an artistic process -- not only to learn art, but subjects like biology, history, and math.

Ann Ott-Cooper is an art teacher at Jackson. She said students in her class think critically and incorporate concepts they've learned in other classes into their art projects.

"They have to figure out, kind of like engineers: How they're going to construct these pieces through drilling holes and wiring them together to have a structure," Ott-Cooper said. "This emphasizes innovation."

Jackson is not a magnet school, nor does it primarily focus on recruiting art students. It's a neighborhood school.

According to the latest figures from the Portland School District, about 90 percent of Jackson's students are from within the school's boundary.

The program at Jackson Middle School is getting results. The majority of students are passing their state assessment tests. Overall, nearly three quarters of the students passed the reading, math and science tests.

And lawmakers are noticing. Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., is promoting a curriculum to her collegues known as STEAM -- Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. It has goals similar to those at Jackson Middle School.

"At the federal level, we are working to make sure that we build awareness of the importance of the arts," Bonamici said.

And at Jackson Middle School, the arts are used to teach almost all subjects.

Teachers classified as highly qualified within their disciplines are assigned to those subjects at Jackson. Students have an attendance rate over 90 percent, which is higher than the school district average.

In other words, students are learning from knowledgeable teachers, showing up to class, and performing well on standardized tests. And scientific research backs up the arts-in-school model.

Bobby Heagerty is with Oregon Health and Science University's Brain Institute, and said the arts have a critical role in the development of the brain.

"The development of the frontal cortex, which is the executive function or the leader, you know the boss of the brain if you will, is developed more through the arts than it is through the sciences," Heagerty said. "So attention, learning, memory, novelty, creativity, innovation, that's frontal cortex."

And Congresswoman Bonamici said a well-rounded education prepares future generations to contribute to society.

"The importance of doing it is to make sure that we have strong talent in those disciplines, but importantly at a young age, making sure we keep kids engaged, so we end up with better thinkers and innovators."

Portland voters were convinced enough of the value of arts in schools to approve a tax last November to ensure an arts curriculum at many elementary schools in the area.

"Our schools will be doing a variety of things," said Portland schools spokesperson Erin Barnett. "Some will be doing music, some dance, some visual arts, some will do a combination. So our students are really going to have a great opportunity that not all of them have had in recent years."

And Barnett said the new arts instruction at elementary schools may be a step toward implementing a teaching style similar to that at Jackson Middle School.

"That level of integration is a very special level of integration that I do know other schools are interested in doing, and perhaps might be more inclined to pursue because we have expanded the arts in our classrooms."

This fall, elementary schools expect to offer new arts courses to over 30,000 students.

Back at Jackson, teachers said their curriculum works, and has proven itself over the 15 years since implementing the Bernstein Artful Learning program.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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