West St. Paul’s Moreland magnet school sees music-academic achievement connection
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, April 1, 2012 –
Something happens to students’ brains when they learn about music.
“Music primes the neural pathways for learning,” said Debora Nass, a music specialist at Moreland Arts and Health Sciences Magnet School in West St. Paul. “It develops a higher order of thinking skills.”
Nass has taught music for three decades, but never like this. Her new classroom is a former computer lab the district converted into a piano studio with 32 electric instruments. There, she’ll teach preschool kids through sixth-graders music fundamentals, including patterns, rhythm and melody.
Teachers and administrators at Moreland are betting those new skills not only will translate into a better understanding of music, but also achievement improvements in core subjects such as reading and math. National research regarding music and art and achievement in other subjects has yielded promising results.
“Our long-term goal is for all of our teachers to use it,” said Teresa Smock-Potter, magnet facilitator for Moreland. “Kids are very creative. How can we use this as a learning tool?”
The piano lab is the latest step in Moreland’s transformation into a magnet school that infuses art and health sciences across student curriculum. Principal Eric Bradley says his staff is constantly working to perfect teaching.
“What we are most trying to do is to reshape our curriculum and instruction in order to meet the state standards in a way that better incorporates the arts and health sciences into the day-to-day teaching and learning at Moreland,” Bradley said.
For third-grader Kaylee Boldt, who learned notes on the keyboard last week, it’s just fun.
“I like that we get to play songs,” Kaylee said, adding she likes to play piano with her grandmother. “You also can show your friends how to play if they don’t know how.”
Music could have a growing influence at other schools in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district, too. Budget recommendations for next year include hiring up to three music teachers to lessen the need for teachers to move between buildings and to ensure that elementary students receive 90 minutes of music instruction each week.
Moreland appears to be trying to reverse part of what art and music advocates say is a troubling trend over the past decade or more.
Since 2000, Minnesota has lost a quarter of its music teachers, according to the Minnesota Music Educators Association. Total staff has declined from about 4,000 positions to 3,000 music-teaching posts over that time.
The losses follow a national trend.
The National Endowment for the Arts reported in 2008 that the percentage of students who received art and music education in childhood fell from 65 percent in 1982 to less than 50 percent in 2008. Those declines go on to affect participation and attendance in artistic events later in life, the report found.
“It has been pretty drastic and it has been happening for a number of years,” said Mary Schaefle, executive director of the Minnesota music teachers group.
The job losses don’t necessarily mean music is eliminated at a particular school, but offerings often are greatly diminished.
“It all depends on where you go to school,” Schaefle said.
Some magnet schools around the metro are embracing “arts-infused learning” because they have found it engages students and can translate into better understanding of core subjects such as reading and math.
The Arts Education Partnership, which works in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, has been studying the relationship between art and music education and improved achievement for nearly two decades.
School administrators are starting to better understand the academic value of art and music, beyond the expected cultural benefits, said Sandra Ruppert, executive director of the Arts Education Partnership. Infusing art and music in a school’s curriculum can have a big impact on learning, she said. For example, piano keyboarding can translate into better understanding of mathematics and pre-algebra.
“We see that when you have an arts-rich school you see higher achievement, in many cases, in other subject areas,” she said. “It is especially true of underserved and at-risk students. The research has mounted to the point we don’t have to rely upon anecdotal evidence.”
It also can get students excited about learning, Ruppert said. “If kids are engaged, they are more likely to come to school. You can’t teach them if they are not there.”
Ruppert applauded Moreland’s model, calling it “fantastic.” Having a trained music instructor like Nass to lead the effort is essential, she said. “There is no substitute for having a full-time (music) teacher in schools.”
That is the goal across Minnesota for Schaefle’s group.
“We just want to make sure there is good, high-quality music education for every student in Minnesota,” Schaefle said. “What that looks like can be different from one school to the next.”
The model is gaining ground because of the impact on student engagement and academic achievement, she said.
Look no further than Moreland, where students are already reacting positively to the new piano lab after just a few classes, said Smock-Potter, the magnet facilitator.
“They are really enjoying it,” she said. “They really come alive.”