Considering the Value of the Arts in Atlanta Public Schools

There is a clear divide in Atlanta when it comes to arts education: public or private.

Believes writing is the most powerful mode of storytelling. Enjoys writing prose fiction and non-fiction. Hopes to be a screenwriter-director one day!

My simple google search for “arts programs in Atlanta schools” pulled up the website Niche, on which is the article: 2019 Best High Schools for the Arts in Georgia. Out of the top ten schools, 4 are private. Only 2 (1 being a private school) are in the City of Atlanta proper. In a city which has a bustling music, culture, and arts scenes, why is this?

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the greater metropolitan area gained the fourth most residents in 2016, cementing its place as the 9th largest metropolitan area in the nation. Most of those migrators came to Atlanta for jobs, lured by the low cost of living (compared to other big cities such as New York or LA). There must also be something said for Atlanta being an African American hot-spot. Simply, “Hotlanta” seems to be the hot place to be. While I can understand the lure of jobs and a vibrant social scene, what I don’t understand is why people don’t take even more practical matters into consideration when choosing to move to Atlanta — namely education.

Georgia comes in #38 out of 51 (including the District of Columbia). Behind that low ranking: Budget cuts.

It is important to consider why millennials are coming to Atlanta, because they aren’t leaving. That means they are getting married and starting families. Their children get the slim pickings that are Georgia public schools. According to WalletHub.com which ranked public schools based on quality and safety, Georgia comes in #38 out of 51 (including the District of Columbia).

Behind that low ranking: Budget cuts. $1 billion per year from 2010 to 2014. Over $9 billion over 16 years. And what got hit hardest? “Larger class sizes, teacher furloughs and fewer enrichment activities,” according to Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

As the daughter of an Atlanta musician, the arts always surrounded me growing up. I grew up listening to my dad play in church and in local professional theaters. I grew up appreciating the High Museum of Art. I danced competitively until the age of 11 and myself went through 3 instruments before settling on the guitar. I was lucky enough to go to a middle school that based itself on the STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math) model rather than the traditional STEM, so I attended visual arts, choir, and dance class throughout the normal school day.

For other students whose parents are not artists and who viewed their kids’ extra-curricular education as a lower tier consideration in moving to Atlanta, what loss is it to them if their kids don’t participate in some sort of arts activity during school?

This is not the norm, however. For other students whose parents are not artists and who viewed their kids’ extra-curricular education as a lower tier consideration in moving to Atlanta, what loss is it to them if their kids don’t participate in some sort of arts activity during school? The answer too frequently may be none. However, this nonchalant attitude certainly shouldn’t be the norm given that curricular are pivotal in creating well-rounded students and citizens. Furthermore, “enrichment activities,” namely ‘the arts’ are proven to improve academic performance, according to PERPICH Center for Arts Education.

I spoke to David Thompson, a high school senior at Carver Early College, about this phenomenon. David is a drum major in the Carver “Pride of the Southside” Marching Band. He has seen the band grow to become “more and more of a family” over his high school career. David could attest to the PERPICH study. He says that “due to the fact that musicians have to analyze music (see the note, identify the note, press the needed keys/valves for the note, see how long the note must be played) in a short amount of time, their brains are faster and sharper. I’ve found this to translate to my math classes where often times, me and my fellow band students are able to get answers quicker than the other students.” Not only academically, but socially David learned valuable lessons from band. He says “It taught me discipline, how to be a leader and not a ruler, its helped break some bad habits like my arrogance and has developed helpful habits like humility and punctuality.”

While the value of an advanced marching band program is clear to see, most schools in the Atlanta Public School (APS) system do not have such enrichment activities in place. According to David, most other schools in the district “aren’t as developed,” meaning Carver marching band’s main competition comes from two schools in a much smaller class. In fact, Carver Early College would not even compete with its own sister schools at George Washington Carver High School.

In 2005, George Washington Carver High School was in danger of being taken over by the state of Georgia, so former superintendent Beverly Hall took a gamble and subdivided the school into four academies: The School of the Arts at Carver, School of Technology at Carver, School of Health Sciences and Research at Carver, and Early College High School at Carver. While the Schools of Arts, Technology, and Health Sciences and Research all have programs indicated by their names, Carver Early College is the only sub-school that pushes its students to excellent standards. Most students finish graduation requirements and start taking college courses by junior year. It makes sense, given this model, that the graduation rate stands at 99%.

According to US News, Carver Early College has risen to be the #1 Atlanta Public School, leaving the overall school, G. W. Carver High School, in the dust. While The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement has given Carver Early College an A for the 4 out the 5 past years, Carver High School has received two Ds and 3 Fs. For what reason is this the case, other than the district decided to place its bets on The Early College and not on G. W. Carver? And how can this be seen as fair in anyone’s imagination?

There must be something bigger going on in the picture of enrichment at schools.

This article assumes the fact that the standard of public education is highly intersectional — that it correlates directly to the income bracket of the surrounding area and that lower brackets are traditionally associated with minority races. However, Carver Early College is the #1 school in Atlanta Public Schools, even though it is not located in an area of APS with high property taxes. More intriguing, The School of the Arts at Carver ranks #18 out of the 19 APS schools, even though it is located on the same campus. Even more intriguing is the fact that both schools have 100% minority enrollment with 99% of the total student population economically disadvantaged.

If it is the case that two schools which share the same address can rank so differently, then there must be something bigger going on in the picture of enrichment at schools, and I think it has to do with how much resources we choose to pool into our schools. Yes, property taxes unfairly determine the quality of education students receive nationwide, but just in considering Carver, it is clear that gems can be made — not coincidentally found — in even the apparently worst areas. And when a school is a gem, it makes sense that comparable accessories, like excellent enrichment activities, follow suit. It should not take a near government take-over for superintendents to try something new in an attempt to make things better. The arts make things better. They should not be limited to students who are already privy to the best.