Brush with Greatness

Amy SilvermanAugust 22, 2019
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Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams
Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams

From piano to painting, a troubling number of Arizona schools have eliminated arts from their curriculum. Our writer surveys the parched landscape, and finds a heroic clique of teachers keeping an oasis alive.

With beige buildings, sparse landscaping and gray concrete walkways dotted with the black remains of

scraped-up chewing gum, Maryvale High School’s West Phoenix campus has all the charm of a prison yard on a warm, still Friday in May.

By contrast, teacher Carrie Deahl’s classroom at the school is a riot of color, courtesy of her massive collection of books – packing the overflowing shelves, propped against the whiteboard, stacked on the floor. The air conditioning blasts this particular wing of Maryvale High so hard that one student is wearing a fur hat and others sport hoodies as they prepare for the last class of the day. The first order of business is rearranging the room. Students yank desks from rows and arrange them in a circle so they face one another, as would happen in a traditional writing workshop at the college or graduate level.

That’s appropriate, as these kids are preparing to share scenes from their own original screenplays. Pretty heady stuff for high schoolers, but they’re up to the task after a year in Deahl’s creative writing class.

Deahl has taught English in the Phoenix Union High School District for almost two decades. About four years ago, she approached Maryvale’s assistant principal and asked if she could teach a creative writing elective. He said yes – if she could fill it. She did, and the following fall, the class was offered to junior and senior honors students, though Deahl says it’s open to just about anyone who is motivated to enroll.

Maryvale High School creative writing teacher Carrie Deahl and her self-funded library; Photo by Angelina Aragon
Maryvale High School creative writing teacher Carrie Deahl and her self-funded library; Photo by Angelina Aragon

“You don’t have to be the best writer in the world, all you’ve got to do is be willing to hone your craft to make it better,” Deahl says. “And then, you know, work up some courage to maybe share out some pieces.”

From six-word memoirs to 50,000-plus-word novels, these students tackle it all with a rigorous, fun curriculum Deahl designed herself. They read a book a month, study poetry and enter writing contests.

At the end of the year, each student writes a letter to themselves, reflecting on how they’ve developed as a writer during the course. Based on a portfolio, students determine their own grades – with Deahl making the ultimate decision.

On this day, students are workshopping movie scenes they have written. Several share their work, taking turns reading different roles and jotting down comments on yellow Post-it notes that are handed back to the author. After one student reads a complicated scene, Deahl offers her own typically constructive criticism.

“I didn’t think you were going to be able to pull this off because we talked about having one to two characters, but you proved me wrong even though I’m not 100 percent sure of how all these characters are related,” she says. “[But] I think I had just enough… It reminds me, there’s this show called The Wire on HBO, and there are a lot of characters that you have to keep track of. So I thought you did a really good job with that.”

The student bows shyly as the group offers a round of applause.

For a long time, I believed that the arts played no role in Arizona public education. It’s part of the narrative of absolutes about this place – that everyone’s a conservative, that it never rains, that no one cares if kids learn to draw a picture or write a movie scene.

In large part, this bleak view of the arts is accurate. You can graduate from high school in this state without taking a single arts class. At the elementary-school level, the state Department of Education acknowledges that only 68 percent of schools provide arts instruction, although it’s required by law in K-8 schools. That law is pretty much an unfunded mandate – from crayons to qualified teachers, all materials are in short supply.

But this isn’t a story about the schools in metro Phoenix that don’t offer arts instruction. It’s about the ones that do.

It wasn’t until I got down in the parenting trenches myself, more than a decade ago, that I learned that some administrators and teachers are getting creative and figuring out how to bring the arts to the most unlikely places – like Maryvale High School, fed by a neighborhood so economically challenged that each and every student qualifies for the free-and-reduced lunch program.

Or my younger daughter’s public high school in Tempe, which, like Maryvale, is a Title I school (meaning it has a high enough number of low-income students to qualify for extra federal funding) – and has programs in dance, theater, choir and visual art. None of it’s fancy, and it’s not at all unique. All over Phoenix, in some of the most unlikely places, the arts thrive – albeit, mostly due to the personal initiative of teachers, parents and students. A relatively new federal program provides funding to arts programs at Title I schools – but it’s not nearly enough. Parents sew costumes and teachers turn to nonprofits for recycled canvas and paintbrushes. Kids sell cookie dough and candles to pay for instruments and field trips.

Highland Arts Elementary art students perform a group exercise on their Mesa campus.; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams
Highland Arts Elementary art students perform a group exercise on their Mesa campus.; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams

So: People here do support the arts. The numbers back it up. A 2018 survey commissioned by nonprofit Arizona Citizens for the Arts showed that 80 percent of Arizonans believed that the arts help students perform academically – compared with 74 percent nationally.

The arts are a crowd favorite for good reason. Increasingly, research shows that arts education is vital in a child’s development. Earlier this year, Rice University in Texas released the results of a study of more than 10,000 students in the Houston area and discovered that “arts-learning experiences benefit students in terms of reductions in disciplinary infractions, increases in compassion for others and improvements in writing achievement,” according to Rice officials, who concluded that “arts-education experiences improve school engagement and college aspirations.”

How important is art? It’s telling that BASIS, the Valley-based family of ultra-competitive charter schools that prioritize academic performance and SAT scores to the point of fetishism, also cultivates outstanding arts programs. An English teacher at one of its Valley high schools marvels at the breadth of arts education, from “theater and visual arts to creative writing.”

Deahl sees evidence of the elevating power of creativity in class every day. “I believe writing is healing,” she says.

She’s lucky because it costs almost nothing to run her creative writing class. Someone donated the money to buy copies of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a writing class favorite, and composition books are inexpensive.

But even teachers in districts that provide material support to arts programs have had to be creative. Kathy Knecht is a longtime educator and former president of the Arizona School Board Association. Her district, in the West Valley city of Peoria, has long prioritized the arts, she says, adding that local control of schools in Arizona means that school boards often dictate how much money is directed to arts education.

Face meets paint during a spring arts fair at Shadow Mountain High School; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams
Face meets paint during a spring arts fair at Shadow Mountain High School; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams

“It’s a matter of setting priorities,” she says. “We saw arts as one of the pillars of a well-rounded education, and it gives a kid an opportunity to express themselves. For some kids, it’s what keeps them in school.”

Knecht says the biggest challenge is finding qualified arts teachers – given that it’s hard to find teachers at all, these days. Partnerships with groups like Arizona Broadway Theatre and the West Valley Arts Council have allowed Peoria to send students on field trips and provide professional development for teachers.

It’s more than worth it, according to Knecht.

Peoria recently purchased the former Challenger Space Center and will transform it into an arts center, something Knecht says will benefit the entire community. “The Peoria School District’s annual arts festival has participation from every one of our schools,” she says.

It’s the largest municipal event of the year in the city of Peoria.

In recent years, the federal government has upped its financial commitment to the arts. For the past three years, the Every Student Succeeds Act has provided money to Arizona for programs addressing anti-bullying, health, technology or the arts. The funds are targeted for and have increased from $8.5 million to $25.5 million for the current fiscal year. Both traditional and charter school districts are eligible.

It sounds terrific – until you do the math. With about 1,300 Title I schools in Arizona, even at the height of funding that averages to less than $20,000 per school. And not all of the money will go to the arts.

But there are arts educators out there who are putting the money to good use.

On a sunny spring morning, there’s a line to talk to the secretary at Highland Arts, a small public elementary school tucked into a quiet Mesa neighborhood.

No, she explains patiently to a woman in a T-shirt and athletic shoes, toddler in tow, there’s no space in the school next fall.

The secretary shrugs apologetically. “Everyone wants to go to Highland,” she says, getting up to walk me to the gym. It’s easy to see why. Every inch of the place is covered in artwork. The lobby doubles as a gallery for student work – on the day I visited there was a wall devoted to multimedia depictions of cells, a creative merging of science and art. The open library is the heart of the school, covered in mosaic collages and murals. Even the ceiling tiles are painted as constellations.

In the gym, the lights are dimmed and local artist Hugo Medina is speaking to a rapt group of K-3 students, half of the school. (The other half, fourth, fifth and sixth graders, will attend a later assembly.) Principal Christy Cuddy and I sit in the back and whisper, pausing to listen to Medina discuss the history of murals and follow up on a field trip the kids have made to see a mural he painted on a government building in Mesa.

The artist talks about murals as a way of bringing social change, showing the kids slides of artwork in Ireland, as well as Calle 16, a project he participated in along 16th Street in Phoenix.

Federal funds paid for teacher training through Lincoln Center in New York. But there’s so much more Cuddy needs. She says her class sizes were bulging, so she added more classrooms, which has put space at a premium. The school’s visual art room is now an oversized closet.

Medina volunteers his time as a speaker, and Cuddy is hoping to find the money to hire him to paint a mural at the school sometime. The field trip cost $1,200 in bus fees, which set her back. But it’s worth it, she says. The arts integrate everything they do at Highland, and the results are clear, from the 100-plus kid waiting list to the respectful, inquisitive nature of the kids throwing their hands in the air, eager to participate in Medina’s discussion.

bubble play during a spring arts fair at Shadow Mountain High School; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams
bubble play during a spring arts fair at Shadow Mountain High School; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams
playing the timpani drums during a spring arts fair at Shadow Mountain High School; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams
playing the timpani drums during a spring arts fair at Shadow Mountain High School; Photo by Matt “Martian” Williams

“It’s a school people want to be at,” Cuddy says, watching the kids watch Medina. In her many years of teaching, she whispers, she’s never seen anything like it.

Yes, wealthy school districts are more likely to have well-funded arts programs than their disadvantaged cousins. But I learned there’s not much rhyme or reason to where you’ll find the odd masterpiece.

Arcadia High School in the Scottsdale Unified School District has wonderful dance and film classes. Less expected: Mesa schools have the largest harp instruction program in the country. There are several charter schools in metro Phoenix that focus on the arts, thanks to creative methods and aggressive fundraising. But while you’ll find Claire Warden, a nationally recognized fine art photographer, teaching at New School for the Arts, a charter in Tempe, you’ll also find Vivian Spiegelman, an equally amazing photographer, in the classroom at the magnet arts program at South Mountain High School in the Phoenix Union High School District.

Though it includes some extremely affluent ares, Paradise Valley Unified School District also encompasses solidly working-class neighborhoods – and is a good example of a district that creatively leverages Title I funding to buttress its arts programs. The district has used money from the Every Student Succeeds Act to build a set of arts academies that takes students from kindergarten through high school.

Academies music teacher Nick Popovich instructs eighth grader Skylar Pirkey on Ableton Live software.
Academies music teacher Nick Popovich instructs eighth grader Skylar Pirkey on Ableton Live software.
student Maxx Wallace jams on the system.
student Maxx Wallace jams on the system.
Artist mentor Hugo Medina shares some of his favorite pieces from Highland Arts Elementary’s student art gallery.
Artist mentor Hugo Medina shares some of his favorite pieces from Highland Arts Elementary’s student art gallery.

Nick Popovich teaches fifth through 12th grade at the North Valley Arts Academies, an integrated program that includes students from Desert Cove Elementary School, Shea Middle School and Shadow Mountain High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Walking up to Popovich’s classroom as the lunch hour ended, I heard the sound of horns and strings, students practicing their art. Popovich says he’s first a music teacher, second a technology teacher.

Inside the classroom, the lights are dimmed and a dozen kids wear giant headphones, tapping sounds on keyboards and other equipment, talking quietly as they collaborate on projects, like putting music to film.

“Students are creating the music they want to create as long as they’re able to use what we’re learning in the classroom. So, how they do that really depends on what they take from what we’re learning and apply it to what they want to make – anything from hardware using different controllers, keyboards, interfaces to software for digital audio workstations,” Popovich says. “We learn about all those different aspects, how to use them, but not just how to use them, how to use them to create whatever they’re looking to create.”

Students have to apply to be a part of this program, but enrollment is open beyond Paradise Valley’s boundaries – and experience is not necessary. They are kids, after all.

In their senior year, each student does an internship or capstone project, with the goal of preparing for college or the workplace. Guest artists come in to speak about their own work, and Popovich fills in funding gaps by collaborating with both the Musical Instrument Museum and rock star Alice Cooper’s teen center, Solid Rock.

The middle schoolers huddled around their computers this afternoon are Googling answers to questions about how to use the equipment, problem-solving on the spot. Popovich loves it.

“I try to avoid me up there lecturing to everyone,” he says. “They have to be able to keep up… and learn whatever’s new.”

Apparently, even teachers in affluent school districts struggle for supplies. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, summer is in full swing but a steady stream of art teachers are in and out of a Tempe warehouse, piling their arms with recycled paper, cast-off theater props and old paintbrushes.

Sherrie Zeitlin started The Arts Resource Center 15 years ago, after working as an artist in the schools in metro Phoenix and seeing the resource gap. “We’ve gone from 480 square feet to 4,000 square feet,” she says. “I need 20,000 square feet. I need 50,000 square feet.”

A nonprofit, the ARC pays for rent and utilities. All labor and art supplies are donated.

Several retired art teachers, including one from Paradise Valley Unified School District, home to the K-12 arts academy, volunteer to sort donations and man the front desk. They gather around a table in the cramped lobby to eat lunch and reminisce.

“When I was teaching art, I got $2 per student for the whole year for supplies,” one says. “I found out about the ARC and it was just a godsend because I was spending a couple thousand to $4,000 or $5,000 a year on supplies.”

On a teacher’s salary.

As we sit and chat, teachers leave the warehouse with arms piled high and tears in their eyes. A plastic panda stuffed with singles and change sits at the front desk. Donations are strictly voluntary. “People feed the panda and people are lovely. They really are,” Zeitlin says. Her greatest wish is for arts funding to increase and put her out of business.

There doesn’t appear to be a chance of that happening anytime soon.