New Arts Magnet Program Strives to Transform School

by ekramer on August 10, 2009

Last summer, the Jefferson County Board of Education voted to have more than 20 elementary schools include magnet programs. It came just a year the U.S. Supreme Court stuck down Jefferson County’s desegregation plan saying it unconstitutionally assigned students to schools by race. This week, these magnet programs — focusing on an array of areas from languages to technology — open in existing elementary schools. Among them is one that will focus on the performing arts and it’s in a school that was in danger of closing several years ago. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

This summer, Lincoln Elementary has been undergoing a transformation— and so has its faculty. More than 20 of its teachers underwent a two-week training put on by the Kentucky Center to teach them how to integrate music, drama and dance into the curriculum.

In just one of their many sessions — led by artists — they are learning how to dance.

Lincoln Arts Magnet 005“Which way are we going first?” Harlina Churn-Diallo asks the teachers. Then she and the class detail their moves. “Arms. Head. Shoulders. Hips,” they chant.

Today, Churn-Diallo is teaching the teachers about using dance to create social studies and history lessons. They are learning about Africa and its dances now. And she says  cover even more geography.

“And we’ll cross the Atlantic and go to the islands. And we’ll learn dances and movements from there,” Churn-Diallo says. “Then we will come to the Americas and learn music and movement.”

And it’s not just the teachers and their lessons getting revamped. Downtown on East Main Street, classrooms at Lincoln Elementary are being renovated.

“This is the room that will have all of the pianos. This is going to be the piano lab,” says Sonya Unseld, the school’s principal. “So, the teacher will be about to allow the kids to construct their own music.”

On a tour, Unseld shows me this room, where there will soon be 15 pianos; and another room that is being made into a dance studio. This year, classes will focus on the basics of reading and math, but also incorporate the performing arts into learning and reserve two-hours of every school day to teaching the performing arts. School staff have been working with local arts groups to realize this goal.

Unseld says parents living as far as the Westport Road and Dixie Highway areas have registered their children to be one of more than 300 starting classes here this week. She says that number could change.

“We think as our program develops, there will be more,” Unseld says.

It’s a far cry from six years ago when the school had falling enrollment. Then many students were from the nearby Clarksdale Housing Complex — which the city demolished in 2004. Back then, school officials had talked of closing the school. But many parents, including many from Clarksdale, were deeply involved with the school. Angela Williams, who was one of them, remembers that time.

“At the end of the year, you held your breath,” Williams says, “and hoped that we got the word that we were going to stay open.”

Williams is breathing more easily these days. Today, she works at the school.

Williams even attended Lincoln for two years before she transferred when busing started in 1975. Busing was the school district’s first move to diversity its schools. Now, it’s trying this by transforming Lincoln and more than 20 other magnets throughout the county.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman says magnets give parents choices that lead to diversity, rather than forcing them to send their children to specific schools. Berman also sees magnets as agents of change in the larger community.

“Our thinking has been that we’d like to see a real renaissance and revitalization in certain areas of our community and the West End is one,” Berman says. “Newberg is another. The area around Lincoln is another. And we think that by investing in these schools, by creating exciting programs, we can also help in the whole neighborhood redevelopment.”

But this isn’t always the case. In some circumstances, magnets have attracted largely middle-class students and displaced poorer and at-risk students. Gary Orfield — an education professor at the University of Southern California  — has studied student selection for magnet schools and education in Kentucky and Jefferson County.

“The dilemma is to figure out how to do them in a fair way and a way that captures that energy but doesn’t become elitist or doesn’t become exclusionary,” Orfeild says.

Superintendent Berman says he thinks that Jefferson County Schools has designed a plan that won’t become exclusionary — and the parents long-associated with Lincoln are hoping that’s true.

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