Teaching the arts in Philadelphia: five schools, five stories

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s 268 schools include selective high schools requiring auditions that regularly turn out professional artists and also schools without even a part-time art or music teacher – with no formal course offerings in the arts. No matter where a school falls on that spectrum, there are likely to be teachers committed to offering quality arts instruction and arts experiences to their students. Here are five examples of teachers who pursue arts education in a variety of ways at a variety of schools across the city.

Photos: Harvey Finkle, Benjamin Herold, & Ron Whitehorne

Diane Dannenfelser

Title/position: Vocal Department Chair, Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP); music theory teacher; choir conductor.

Experience: 30 years, 25 at GAMP.

Availability of the arts at GAMP: GAMP is a college-preparatory, selective admission magnet school with a required music theory and choral curriculum. All students take music theory and perform in the school choir. They may also take instrumental music lessons. Every other year, GAMP produces a musical. GAMP serves grades 5-12 with 550 students from all parts of the city. There is no art teacher at GAMP.

“We have great leadership… We don’t really do without here.” Jack Carr started GAMP 30 years ago with 55 fifth- and sixth-grade students. His vision is reflected in the GAMP mission statement: “We cannot tolerate another generation that knows so much about destroying life, but so little about enhancing it. We cannot permit our children to come into their maturity as masters of the atom and gene, yet ignorant of the ways of the human mind and heart.”

Vision of arts education: “Ideal arts education would have one period each day for some form of art. One class per week is not enough to enhance someone’s life…. Art is an outlet for our emotions—for joys and sorrows. In art, no one is segregated. Art teaches the inner connectedness of all people.”

Successes: The music staff team-teaches, and the academic staff works to integrate music into their subjects. GAMP annually produces a winter and a spring concert. They produce a musical every other year. They also perform 20-30 gigs every year—from Temple’s Music Festival to mayoral, District, and community functions. Over 90 percent of GAMP seniors attend college.

Challenges: “The same kids are in everything. The one who’s good at baseball is the same kid who sings and who plays in the orchestra. So that’s hard. Also, there are lots of students who are forced to work, and it’s hard to get them here after school. They juggle a lot, but we always say here, ‘We’ll find a way.’ "

Photo: Benjamin Herold

William Casey

Title/position: Full-time art teacher, Jay Cooke Elementary School, grades K-8. Teaches visual arts, including drawing, painting, printmaking, ceramics, and crafts.

Experience: Eight years teaching, seven at Cooke.

Availability of the arts at Cooke: Full-time art teacher with dedicated art room and kiln. Artist-in-residence program, featuring professional artist Diane Pieri, supported through an Art Partners grant from the Delphi Foundation through the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There is no music teacher at Cooke.

“The main thing is that Mr. Branch, the principal, is an artist himself. He used to teach art here at Cooke, and he is a big advocate for the arts. He provides any supplies I need, and he will write grants to bring in extra resources.”

Vision of arts education: “I was a lead writer for the District’s middle school core curriculum. I emphasize group projects. I’ve always focused on group public art projects with my eighth grade students. It helps to improve the appearance of the school, connect students with art in the community, and give the students more ownership of what they make. I want the kids’ arts experiences here to be both positive and memorable.”

Recent successes: After Pieri’s initial residency, she was invited to stay and create the Cooke Museum of Art, which gives students the chance to exhibit their work in a professional-style display in the school’s marble hallway. Two major television networks covered the museum’s opening last year.

Through the Art Partners grant, Casey and Pieri have developed a Locker Art Mural Project, with rows of hallway lockers painted in the style of noted Japanese artist Honami Koetsu (see photo above).

Challenges: “The biggest challenge is scheduling. Block scheduling helps, because I get the same students every day for an entire marking period, and you can get better projects done this way. If you had a different class every period, every day, it would be impossible to do the type of projects we do. But 90-minute blocks have been whittled down to 45 minutes, and I’m seeing more kids for less time.”

Photo: Ron Whitehorne

Lauren Beal

Title/position: Seventh grade science and Spanish teacher, student government advisor, Academy of the Middle Years (AMY – NW)

Experience: 5 years, 3 at AMY – NW.

Availability of the arts at AMY – NW: There is no art teacher on staff at AMY – NW. The students’ only formal exposure to the arts is one music class per week with an itinerant music teacher. However, as a school in the District’s Emerging Scholars program, AMY has created enrichment clusters. “They’re every Friday. The teachers select what they want to teach, and students sign up for a course they’re interested in. We have Chinese brush-painting, history of rock and roll, designing spaces…. They all have a culminating project that will be showcased at a school arts festival.” The end-of-year festival was a student’s idea and is being organized by AMY’s student government with Beal’s support.

Beal was a recipient of a Picasso Project grant for AMY to bring professional performers, to buy art supplies, and to “raise the level of the arts” at the school. The Picasso Project awards grants from $500 to $5,000 for projects that enhance the integration of the arts into the curriculum and classroom. It is a nonprofit fund run by Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth.

Vision of arts education: “I would love for there to be a formal arts program… but in its absence, students need the chance to explore as many experiences as possible. While we don’t have an art teacher, teachers try to incorporate art as much as possible into their classrooms. It’s necessary.”

Recent successes: An eighth grade AMY student won the Northwest Region art contest, and four students were admitted to the Youth Artist Workshop at Moore College. “Our principal is excellent about finding opportunities for students, and the teachers are good about following up on them .… The kids being able to explore and getting to do art is a success.”

Challenges: “Small schools have fewer resources. The rigorous core curriculum can make it difficult to do art… but it’s important because we have some very talented students who have no way to showcase it. This year, we just started the enrichment clusters after the PSSA. But next year, we’ll have them all year.”

(shown with band teacher
Elisabeth D’Alessandro)
Photo: Benjamin Herold

Frank Burd

Title/position: Math, theater, and photography teacher, Germantown High School.

Experience: 23 years. Taught at Germantown from 1973-76, taught at Parkway, and took time away from teaching before returning to Germantown in 2000. Also directs theater professionally.

Availability of the arts at Germantown: Full-time teacher for fine arts and for instrumental music; a jazz band, concert band, and drumline; courses in dance, theater, and photography. “This year, I taught three math courses, a yearlong theater course, and a yearlong photo course. Next year, I will have four math courses and the theater and photo courses will be half-year because of the budget cuts.”

Produced and staged five plays in the past four years, including “The Colored Museum,” “Good Black Don’t Crack,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and, this year, “The Wiz.”

Vision of arts education: “I hated block rostering for math, but I loved it for theater and photography. Now that we’re back to a regular roster, I wonder what is the future of the arts? For the brighter academic students [who have the roster flexibility to choose electives], it will always be available. But what about the students who may be struggling academically who might thrive in the arts?”

Recent successes: “This year, we were able to put on a musical, ‘The Wiz,’ because the band teacher (D’Alessandro) helped out a lot and because lots of groups contributed. We had to rent lights and a sound system … a school should have that, but we don’t. I went to Halloween Adventure the day after Halloween and bought all the costumes at 60 percent off.”

D’Alessandro noted, “The administration … finds a way to get us what we need, to provide us with the flexible scheduling to take on these types of projects.”

Challenges: “I directed the fall play at Cheltenham High School. They have a real budget, three people to work on it, and it’s all after school. At comprehensive high schools in the city, most of the kids have jobs, babies, or brothers and sisters they have to take care of after school, which means you can’t do after school, and it can make it really hard to rehearse.”

Photo: Harvey Finkle

Sam Reed

Title/position: Sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher, Beeber Middle School.

Experience: Eight years, all at Beeber.

Availability of the arts at Beeber: Young Playwrights program, various resident artists, annual Poetry Café. Beeber has a visual art teacher: all students take art one marking period per year. A small number work with an artist-in-residence on mural arts. The school has a vocal music teacher, three student choirs, one for each grade, and a share of two instrumental music teachers.

Reed praised his principal, Deborah Jumpp, for supporting staff in creating arts programs and for starting an arts magnet program at Beeber. “I’m really proactive about finding grant funding so we can have these programs.” Beeber also has a grant committee that works to secure funding for arts programs.

Vision of arts education: “Effective arts have to have hands-on components, be engaging, and lead to a space for kids to showcase their work . . . . Students have a reason to want to read, to research, and to cooperate with the arts, so it’s a productive exchange. Art helps kids mediate the problems they’re having . . . . You have to look closely at the world to write a story about the world, so the arts support students to read, think, and write critically.”

Recent successes: One of Reed’s students won the Young Playwrights competition last year. The Poetry Café began in Reed’s classroom and has grown every year. This year, it is a schoolwide competition with corporate sponsors donating prizes. “When you build strong partnerships, you get credibility and can leverage that to get more grants and more support. Organizations want to work with you when they know you’re doing something of value.”

Challenges: Being able to balance arts and the standards-based curriculum is one challenge, but Reed explains that the arts must be integrated into other classes. Class size is a challenge when working with partner organizations because many prefer or require smaller groups than the 33 that teachers often have.

Involving all students is a challenge. “Two-thirds of the class may be engaged, but one-third … their enthusiasm dies off when they realize it’s still work. You really have to push them.” Though he works to involve other classes, Young Playwrights primarily reaches his own students.