- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - In 1991, the Mississippi Arts Commission introduced an initiative to marry the arts with everyday instruction in Mississippi classrooms prompted by back-to-basics education reform.

What began as a pilot program in six elementary schools across the state, the Whole Schools Initiative now reaches students in 34 schools statewide.

Whole Schools invigorates classrooms with the arts through two avenues - everyday instruction and visiting artists.

The idea is to incorporate music, dance, theater and visual arts into daily classroom activities and lessons using the arts as a vehicle for learning.

For example, teachers may have students act out a story they’ve read in class, create a piece of art with geometric shapes using area and perimeter or choreograph a song-and-dance routine that illustrates a scientific process.

Teachers and arts specialists work together to plan lessons and integrate their two curriculums.

Schools must apply each year to participate in the initiative.

During their first year, schools are designated “Arts in the Classroom” schools. After that, they become “Whole Schools,” and finally, “Model Schools.”

To become a Model School, the school must have 85 percent of its faculty on board for teaching arts-integrated strategies every day.

Grant money is provided to schools based on their designation, and each school has to match the amount of money given to it by Whole Schools.

That money pays for visiting artists to come to the schools and for arts integration training for teachers.

Each summer, educators also have the opportunity to attend the Whole Schools Summer Institute for more training.

Schools use the match money to fund supplies, lessons and events.

In Northeast Mississippi, schools participating in the initiative include all of the Tupelo Public School District’s pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade schools, Pontotoc and Saltillo elementary schools and Pontotoc Middle School.

TPSD is the only school district in the state to have gone districtwide with the initiative, though the Clarksdale Municipal School District is currently working toward that goal.

Tupelo’s Pierce Street Elementary was one of the six schools across the state that piloted the initiative.

All eligible schools in the district have since adopted the program.

Gearl Loden, superintendent of Tupelo Schools, made the decision to implement Whole Schools across the school district and is committed to the initiative.

He believes the arts enhance the core subjects and sees the arts-integration method as a competitive edge for Tupelo Schools.

“Tupelo, as a district, has been dedicated to arts integration for years,” Loden said. “We want to know that we’re offering flexibility in our buildings but at the same time the same core curriculum, so if I’m zoned for Carver versus Parkway, I’m still going to get arts integration.”

Kristy Luse, director of the Whole Schools Initiative for Tupelo Schools, said the district has experienced a high level of buy-in from the school community.

Some of Tupelo’s schools have participated in the initiative for many years, while some have more recently adopted the arts-integration philosophy. But Luse said the foundation has always been there.

The initiative and its benefits continue to grow in the district’s schools, Luse said.

“The students and parents have embraced it. I think the teachers see it as a breath of fresh air to their instruction,” she said. “I think there is more willingness to try arts-related things in the classroom now than there has been in the past few years.”

Andrea Coleman, director of the Whole Schools Initiative, said going districtwide with the initiative made sense for Tupelo Schools because the district had community and administrative support from the beginning.

The initiative’s professional development jives with school district training better when administrators are on board with the program.

As a result, Coleman said, the teachers get more out of the program.

“It makes a huge difference because when the superintendent has said, ‘You’re going to be a part of the program,’ it becomes a part of who they are and a part of the school culture,” Coleman said. “It is working really well for (Tupelo).”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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