TUPELO • Arts integration in schools has been around for more than two decades, and the majority of Tupelo schools integrate arts in classrooms today, but the district is taking it a step further this fall, with the hiring of Arts Integration Facilitator Kit Stafford to oversee the program.
The local artist has painted several murals in the area over the years, particularly the Elvis mural and the Postcard from Tupelo murals downtown. Stafford has even gotten kids involved in community art projects. A project that started in 2010 brought together students in grades K-12 to paint more than 30 guitars along Main Street downtown. The names of the schools are written on stands at the bottom of each guitar.
Arts integration, according to the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts – in which President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation creating the National Cultural Center in 1958 – is defined as a teaching approach where students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form and engage in a creative process connecting art forms with subject areas to meet evolving objectives in both.
The Mississippi Arts Commission Whole Schools Initiative has worked to bring arts integration programs to Mississippi schools since 1998, and the program was actually piloted in six elementary schools in Mississippi initially, including Pierce Street in Tupelo, a model school.
Tupelo has 11 schools with arts integration programs, which accounts for nearly half of school participation in the initiative statewide. Thomas Street Elementary is another model school for the initiative in Tupelo, and Stafford said other schools in the district are moving toward model school status.
Stafford has been teaching in Tupelo since 1999 and has taught art for 17 years. She was working as an art teacher at Pierce Street when the whole schools initiative was first implemented in Tupelo.
“That really laid a foundation for me, a deep understanding of what arts integration should be and can be and the effects it can have on our students,” Stafford said.
From visual arts, drama, dance and music, Stafford said there are many ways to use the arts to make learning more engaging for students. Teachers can use fine art prints to teach writing or drama to teach history, music to help with learning fractions and math concepts, or dance to teach the water cycles in science classes.
Stafford said many teachers within Tupelo Public School District have implemented arts integration successfully in their classrooms for years with positive results.
“We are not reinventing the wheel, we have a lot of these things already, we are just going to grow and enhance the program.”
Stafford said arts integration is not about creating more work for teachers, it is about using a creative approach to help students learn in an engaging and meaningful way.
“Successful arts integration becomes a daily practice and way of approaching learning rather than a singular activity,” Stafford said.
“I hope to serve as a resource and provide the support that these teachers need to make arts integration sustainable and help keep the joy in the classroom.”
The Whole Schools Initiative tracks data from its 33 schools across the state and in the 2017-18 school year, student proficiency on the English Language Arts and math portions of the annual MAAP state standardized test were significantly higher for schools with strong arts integration programs.
The state average percentage of students who passed the ELA portion of the MAAP was 39.8% compared to the 46.09% of students who achieved proficiency and also attended “whole schools” with arts integration programs. The state average percentage of students who passed the math portion was 43.2% compared to the 50.62% of “whole schools” students who passed.
Over the last several years, proficiency levels for whole schools students have been on the rise, outperforming average statewide test scores.
The percentage of students from whole schools who scored proficient or above on standardized tests in English and math were significantly higher than average statewide proficiency scores in 2017-18, and strangely, when compared to the performance of students in whole schools districts.
The report put together with data from the state Department of Education and the Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development concluded arts integration does improve the academic achievement of students and effective programs can also help bridge education achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students.
In her new role, Stafford is on the hunt for collaborations. She said she hopes to partner with more arts organizations within the community. She will also meet with teachers to evaluate what they need to support arts integration in classrooms, particularly newer art teachers. She also hopes to establish a central location for the arts integration program in Tupelo.
“I just love what the arts does in a community, I can’t imagine living in a community or going to school and not having those experiences. For some students, that is what makes them get up and want to go to school every day, so I really think it is crucial,” Stafford said.