Community Impact Series -- KIDsmART

New Orleans, La. –
Chavon Thomas, a fifth grader at the Martin Behrman Charter School in Algiers, has no problem naming her favorite part of the school day.

"When I get out of my seat, that's what really makes it fun," she says. "I'm out in front of my classmates, and they are like laughing and we're joking around, and that's the fun part about it. We are just having fun."

Chavon is not talking about P.E. She's talking about her language arts class when her teacher Edie Drake is joined by local theater director Andy Vaught. The students leave their desks behind to act out the day's lesson plan, using the dynamics of the stage to express and bring home the classroom curriculum.

It's is just one example of how the arts become powerful teaching tools in New Orleans public schools through partnerships orchestrated by the nonprofit KIDsmART. With a team of teaching artists now working in 10 local schools, and with specialized training for classroom teachers, KIDsmART works from the idea that arts can reach students in ways that traditional classroom methods might not.

"It's something students can latch on to, understand, enjoy, and then feel success with that and they can transfer that success to other areas, like the verbal and the mathematical," says KIDsmART executive director Echo Olander.

The approach gives some students a new way to relate to the core lessons of the class, says Andy Vaught, who, when he's not working alongside teachers at Martin Behrman, serves as director of the edgy Cripple Creek Theater Company in New Orleans.

"Some kids, who when you come, are very stand-offish, very against participating in the class, they've really opened up," says Andy. "And kids that have been in this program longer, they're comprehension has increased a lot. They're really able to make connections a lot quicker than they were in the beginning."

From painting to sculpture to dance, KIDsmART brings artists from many different mediums into their partner schools to work with teachers across the curriculum. Language teacher Edie Drake says the experience helps students grasp the value of their lessons in more personal and tangible ways.

"And that's the most important part. If you can make the connection in my classroom while we're doing it, and transfer that over to the paper when I give it to you, it's yours, it's yours for life now. It's not just something that you did to pass this test," says Drake. "And that's all the difference in the world to me. Because I don't want you to just learn it for fifth grade. I need you to know it forever."

Drake says KIDsmART has a positive impact on grades, and it's preparing students for the critical, imaginative thinking they'll need in whatever path they choose in life. After all, as young Chavon Thomas points out, an education enriched by art doesn't necessarily lead to an arts career.

"Yeah it's fun, but I wouldn't do it when I grow up, but I really like it. It's fun.
I'm more into science," she says. "I want to work with chemistry when I grow up. Even though I don't know what it's about it just seems interesting to me."

Learn more about KIDsmART.