The new Detroit school board is trying to address one of the most persistent complaints about city schools: The fact that roughly half of schools offer no formal instruction in music or art.
Numbers provided by the district show that of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers, and 51 had no instrumental or vocal music teachers during the school year that just ended.
Nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction.
“It’s been a tragic situation that kids were not exposed to that opportunity to take and study the arts,” said Willie McAlister, who heads the district’s office of fine arts. “When I was student, all of the schools in the district had art, music, dance, gym, a lot of different things.”
Arts programs took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until last year, said McAlister, a DPS grad who says he’s worked in the district for 39 years.
“The first thing they did was cut the arts.”
But Detroit voters last year elected a new school board that took control of the district in January and made the arts a priority, he said.
He’s been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30 to 45 schools.
“We are moving forward with the restoration of our arts and music programs,” McAlister said.
During years without these programs, many schools lost the equipment they once had to theft or lack of maintenance. McAlister said the first step is to visit schools and assess the condition of instruments and other supplies.
The district aims to eventually offer two art components in every elementary and middle school, with some offering visual arts and instrumental music, others perhaps dance and vocal music.
Most of the city’s high schools have at least some kind of arts program. Large selective schools like Cass Tech, Renaissance and the Detroit School of the Arts offer several such programs. But some smaller high schools don’t currently offer music or art.
That’s a problem, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the organization Living Arts, which places teaching artists in Detroit-area schools.
“We need innovative thinkers,” Novoselick said. “Creative thinking and the arts are really in everything that we do … When we strip the arts from our schools, we are losing so much possibility of innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Novoselick said Living Arts teaching artists, who work in both district and charter schools, are often the only arts instructors in their schools. They typically work with one class of kids for two months, two days a week, though they train classroom teachers to continue arts instruction after they’re gone.
“These kids need a reason to come to school,” she said, adding that music and arts can “reach schools and teachers and kids at a level that isn’t going to come through textbooks and memorizing facts.”
Here’s the list of Detroit district schools that offered music and art last year. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.