The Arts of Education

Support for urban teachers at the heart of arts integration initiative

by Sara Woelfel
Photography by Tim Abler

On the Cardinal Stritch University campus, the fine arts center is the only building not connected to the rest of the academic buildings. But that’s all changing.

No, the University isn’t constructing covered walkways, erecting bridges or digging another underground tunnel to create connections between buildings. Instead, the Joan Steele Stein Center for Communication Studies/Fine Arts is opening the doors to its studios, workshops, rehearsal rooms and performance spaces a little wider as a new influx of students and faculty members begin to cross the threshold.

“These are not art majors, they are education majors,” said Tim Abler, chair of Stritch’s Undergraduate Visual Arts Department. “They are embracing new methods to reach students through arts integration.”

In fact, not only are education students venturing boldly into these creative spaces, but this arts integration effort at Stritch involves a whole community of educators from Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) who spend hours of unpaid time after work and during summer breaks dipping their paintbrushes, tapping out beats on a drum, and busting their acting chops on campus.

Dabbling in the arts might appear to be a departure from the serious work that today’s teachers need to do to stay relevant. And, yet, research from The Kennedy Center indicates that “students in arts-integrated classrooms are more creative, engaged and effective at problem solving.” Teachers who embrace this strategy go beyond offering occasional arts elements in their classrooms; instead the arts—visual, performance, literary, multimedia—become essential tools and refined lenses through which students experience lessons in core subjects.

Cardinal Stritch University is putting this research into practice in ways that are shaking the foundation of Stritch’s teacher education program. A 2012 email from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies set this change in motion. The foundation issued a highly coveted invitation to the University to apply for funding to create a program rooted in arts integration that could support professional development and educational opportunities for teachers, especially those new to the profession or in their pre-service years.

While increased student achievement through arts integration is the ultimate goal, this program will measure its success largely on how it can change the tide of teacher retention, primarily in public schools—both by helping new teachers to feel prepared for and supported through the challenges of their early years and in helping veteran teachers persist and feel rejuvenated rather than opt for early retirements or career changes that fuel a growing teacher shortage. In 2014, reports indicated that, of 1,484 new teachers hired into MPS in the five years prior, only 42% stayed in the district, a percentage lower than the national average among urban districts.

Six years after the email landed in Tim Abler’s inbox, the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant continues to fuel a groundswell of arts-based innovation at Stritch and in targeted pockets of the Milwaukee education community.

Partners, experts gather and plan

A partnership connecting Stritch, MPS and Arts@Large answered the call from Cargill and led to the founding of artsHUBmke, a collaboration that “builds the skills of pre-service student teachers, new and veteran classroom teachers, arts specialists, community artist educators, and university faculty to design and implement arts-integrated teaching strategies that engage students in dynamic learning experiences.”

For a program with this many moving parts, the success depends on a core team of leaders who have embraced this and owned it from the start. These men and women bring together their individual areas of expertise, networks of colleagues, and willingness to venture outside their academic and professional boundaries.

“Most universities are operating in silos,” said Dr. Clavon Byrd, ’02, ’09, chair of undergraduate education. “I’ve grown to understand through colleagues from other schools that most universities are not as collaborative as what we’ve embraced here at Stritch.”

Under the terms of the grant, the team used the first year for dedicated planning.

“The beautiful thing is how the administrator of this grant believes the theory of change is going to take a while,” said Laura Yale, ’88, interim director of
artsHUBmke. “So Cargill provided a one-year grant to plan the bigger grant and get all our ducks in a row. That never happens.”

Kim Abler, ’84, ’91, co-founder of Arts@Large, assistant principal at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, and Stritch adjunct faculty member, said the momentum of the program today is largely due to that planning time.

“Stritch spent a lot of time and energy and investment in bringing diverse people and perspectives to the table so our team could hear the direct voices of students, MPS teachers, principals, content experts, and former superintendents. All these groups helped to shape the model that we created.”

The result?

The scope and depth of the model is epitomized through the journey of alumna Erica Kramer, ’17—from her first days as a Stritch education major through her first days teaching a class of 33 4-year-olds at Starms Early Childhood Center, one of four MPS “HUB” schools in artsHUBmke.

The artsHUBmke life cycle begins at Stritch, where the College of Education and Leadership and the College of Arts and Sciences are teaming up in the redesign of education courses to incorporate arts integration. As of fall 2018, 10 arts-integrated courses were offered and, in the 2017–18 academic year, 65 students took at least one of those courses, which helps familiarize them with arts integration methods from a student perspective so they can more effectively and seamlessly incorporate them in future classes as teachers.

Kramer took several of these courses while at Stritch and also accepted an invitation to fulfill her student teaching requirements at MPS Parkside School of the Arts and join a HUB team. As part of this group, she joined with a mentor teacher, school art specialist, and Arts@Large artist educator to guide students through the research and creation of an arts-integrated museum project.

“To top that off, I was hired on as a paraprofessional at Parkside after I was done with student teaching, and I got to be a part of two more museum processes with two other teachers,” Kramer said.

Now, as a first-year teacher, Kramer came into her school with this enhanced skill set that positions her among Starms' arts integration leaders. As she looks to more seasoned colleagues to help her navigate the first year, she has the confidence that she likewise has something to contribute.

“One of the objectives of artsHUBmke is to feed this pipeline from Stritch into MPS, and she is our first success story,” Yale said.

Since Kramer is at a HUB school and part of a team, the Stritch faculty, Arts@Large artists, and other colleagues she’s met through artsHUBmke provide a support system as an extension of the grant program. Ongoing support is proven to be critical in teacher retention in the first five years.

Museum projects

A member of the core leadership team from the outset, former director Linda D’Aquisto helped refine the museum concept that is at the center of the artsHUBmke experience. Her death in December 2017 left a void on the team, but her colleagues remain inspired by her passionate advocacy for the school museums.

“The museum project is a strategy teachers, both new and veteran, can embrace,” Tim Abler said. “Art components, with techniques sometimes taught on site by Arts@Large artists, are used in designing a museum. When finished, the children become museum curators, working on their ability to vocalize and describe. When they open their museums at their school, the public comes in and experiences their work.”

“They take this very seriously because it is public,” Kim Abler said. “It’s not doing a worksheet. It’s not writing a paper and sending it off to your teacher. You have to know the information on a much deeper level.”

This process is used in MPS HUB schools from the earliest grades all the way up to high school, and can focus on research projects lasting a few weeks to those spanning a semester. The topics can relate to any content area with all members of the class contributing their own components.

“A lot of the museums take on a social justice angle with an activism tone,” Byrd said. “It’s completely student centered, completely student driven.”
Dr. Corey Thompson, ’07, assistant professor of urban education, implemented a museum experience in his arts-integrated ED 205 course. He echoed Byrd, saying each museum process is a true reflection of the students creating the project.

“What I really have grown to love about that project is that there is no way for me to know what the content of that museum is going to be until the actual group of students shows up and makes it their own.”

High praise

Yale said once students grind through the experience one time, they know how difficult it can be to prepare for a museum opening. And, yet, time and again, students approach her with the same question.

“‘Am I going to be able to do a museum this year?’” Yale said. “And I think, ‘Seriously?’ Because it’s a lot of work, but it touches these kids at their very sense of being and makes them want to try harder and do better, because the satisfaction that they get out of it and the learning that takes place is incredible.”

Apparently the teachers feel the same way. While the leadership team designed a two-year experience for teachers, with monthly HUB team meetings and 45 hours of intensive summer professional development, participants at the end of their commitment asked to continue for a third year.

“Once we’re at a school, it naturally creates a synergy and an energy that people are drawn to,” Kim Abler said. “This is the third year it’s at my school and other teachers are approaching me, asking, ‘How can I get involved?’”

The growing interest in artsHUBmke validates that teachers see genuine value in the program.

“There’s no credit involved, no carrot at the end of a stick,” Byrd said. “These are people who are saying, ‘I want to rejuvenate myself’ or ‘I want to be better at this art of helping children learn.’ It’s not only an epidemic that early teachers are leaving the profession, but late-career teachers are leaving, so when they find something new and invigorating and they can see tangible results of their students learning, that is the intrinsic value for these teachers.”

Is it working?

While it may be too soon to measure long-term outcomes related to teacher retention or academic achievement, early indications based simply on anecdotal evidence and participant commitment reveal real potential for artsHUBmke to expand to more schools, train more teachers and eventually address recruitment and retention concerns in public schools.

“By embedding the integration of the arts into the majority of our teacher preparation classes, connecting fine arts faculty with education faculty and purposely connecting our field placements and student teachers in arts integration-friendly schools in MPS, the foundation has been firmly created for the future,” Professor Emerita Dr. Nancy Blair said. “The bridges that have been built between fine arts and education on our campus and between our campus and MPS are long lasting and sustainable beyond any grant dependence.”

In early 2019, Byrd and Tim Abler will give a presentation on artsHUBmke at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education national conference, and the team predicts interest in the model may expand beyond Stritch and the Milwaukee area once others learn about meaningful ways the collaboration is affecting the educational community.

“We are all working together to make sure that the ultimate beneficiaries are the students, the children of Milwaukee, who will be able to learn so much through this arts-integrated model,” Byrd said “And ultimately our goal is for them to impact society.”