Low-income students getting short shrift in the arts, new report finds

Low-income public schoolchildren in Denver are less likely to get a quality arts education than their wealthier peers, according to a new report by a Denver-based advocacy group.

Elementary schools where most students are living in poverty send far fewer kids to the city’s premier arts magnet middle school, the report found. Schools that serve poor children also have fewer partnerships with community artists and organizations, it found.

The report, by the group A Plus Denver, questions how the state’s largest school district has spent more than $40 million in voter-approved tax money earmarked for improving arts education in Denver Public Schools. For example, while middle and high schools have received $18 million over the past three years, district-run schools have added just 28 new arts teachers.

“It seems, in many cases, the money is merely addressing gaps left by a dip in the overall operating budget, rather than adding new arts opportunities,” the report says.

But because the district didn’t have a good understanding of the number and quality of arts programs that existed at its schools before the tax increases, and because it still doesn’t have the full picture now, it’s difficult to know to what extent that’s happening, the report concludes.

DPS officials recognize that shortcoming and are working to fix it. The district plans to survey middle and high school arts teachers, as well as those who work in K-8 schools, this spring about the offerings at their schools.

Officials are also planning an in-depth study of arts offerings in one neighborhood — southwest Denver — to better understand the pipelines there: if a fifth-grader has developed a passion for music at his elementary school, is there a middle school with a strong band program nearby?

Both initiatives are part of a five-year DPS plan to research current arts programming, define what a “high-quality” arts education looks like and prepare teachers to deliver it, among other objectives.

“Our goal is to get a true understanding of the landscape that exists across the district so we have the depth and understanding of what our arts programming should be,” said Devin Fletcher, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction.

In 2003, Denver voters approved new taxes — through what’s called a mill levy override — to provide art and music teachers in all elementary schools. That has since happened, the report notes. In 2012, voters approved more new taxes to restore and enhance arts programming in the district’s middle and high schools.

Over the past three school years, DPS has received about $46 million from the two tax increases, according to Dustin Kress, the district’s manager of bond and mill levy programs.

“The problem is that we don’t know, beyond it going to schools for arts … very much else about it,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A Plus Denver.

“If we had done this for literacy or math and had no notion of some measures of whether or not it’s working, we would be outraged,” he added. “While I get that arts is a little more complicated — we can’t just pull out a (test) score — it’s still important.”

Admissions to the district’s top conservatory arts school, Denver School of the Arts, suggests that arts programming across the city remains unequal. An analysis included in the report shows that the DPS schools that successfully send the most kids to DSA, which requires an audition, have the lowest percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Only eight students from 101 DPS schools where more than 80 percent of kids meet that bar were accepted at DSA in the 2014-15 school year, according to the report.

Just one low-income school, Garden Place Academy in north Denver, successfully sent more than one student. Garden Place partners with a program called El Sistema Colorado, which provides free violin instruction to kindergarten and first-graders during school hours and to all kids after school.

But few DPS schools that serve high percentages of poor students have such fruitful partnerships, the report notes. The district should do more to foster those connections, it says.

“What’s depressing is that despite a growing riches of arts organizations and art activity in Denver, that’s not reflected in schools with low-income kids,” Schoales said.

DSA principal William Kohut did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Fletcher said DPS is committed to ensuring that all students have broad and equitable access to the arts, and he’s hopeful that the district’s five-year arts plan will help achieve that goal.

The report suggests it will take more than that, including a way to ensure that tax money improves arts programming instead of simply maintaining the status quo in times of tightening budgets. DPS is already exploring asking voters to approve another mill levy override in 2016.