Steamboat Springs A group of community members, parents and Steamboat Springs School District staff has been meeting to determine whether local schools could - and should - expand the arts opportunities for students.
The Arts Committee still is in an organizational mode, but Keri Rusthoi, a former member of the Education Fund Board and current artistic director of Emerald City Opera, is thankful the ball it at least rolling on an issue she says needs to be addressed.
"It's such an improvement," said Rusthoi, who pointed to the Fund Board's expenditure of $250,000 of taxpayer's money on an artificial turf athletic field last year as motivation for the arts community to get organized and involved in educational matters. "But dialogue will continue until it fades unless we have a goal in mind. I really think it's crucial that some goals are set and a timeline to meet those goals is created - even if the first goal is creating a timeline.
"There seems to be a movement in the community to improve arts, but if we can't tell the school district what we want, how can they do it?"
Art in education
Numerous studies backed by groups such as the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association and the National School Boards Association agree that an education in the arts is invaluable for students, particularly as it relates to triggering brain activity.
The Steamboat Springs School District currently offers a variety of arts programs and opportunities for its students at all grade levels.
At the elementary schools, which employ two full-time music teachers, students do three-week rotations, spending one full week in music, art or physical education before rotating to the next discipline.
For example, fourth-graders are split up and rotated through the three courses, so Strawberry Park Elementary School music teacher Michelle Hess sees every student for 50 minutes a day for a straight week. That means each student will have a total of 12 weeks of music instruction during the school year.
"What I really like is being able to see them every day for a week to make sure they understand a concept," said Hess, who admitted she did not think she would like the rotating schedule. "They don't get sick of it because they only have music once every three weeks. They come back and remember because I hit them every day with a concept for a week."
Soda Creek operates on the same schedule with music teacher Amy Larson.
"The elementary school programs are really strong," said Hess, who is active in the Arts Committee with Larson. "We send out kids who are totally prepared."
At the middle school, students are given options.
In sixth grade, all students spend nine weeks in physical education, art, health and industrial arts classes. Band is optional, and Spanish is required. Sixth-graders now are being offered drama for nine weeks as an optional course.
In the seventh grade, band, drama and foreign language are optional. Students spend nine weeks rotating between P.E., industrial arts, art and health.
In eighth grade, students rotate between P.E., industrial arts, art and health. Musical theater is now offered, and foreign language, band and choir are optional and meet all year.
"Our students really appreciate the opportunity to participate in drama," middle school Principal Tim Bishop said. "Our numbers are really high."
Bishop said the middle school schedule is re-examined annually to see what is working and what may need changing.
At Steamboat Springs High School, where the course offerings increase but become exclusively optional, students have numerous opportunities to delve into the arts. All arts courses are at least one semester.
A high school diploma with an emphasis in either visual or performing arts also is offered, which means students must take at least three credits of art, including one at an advanced level, while averaging a "B" grade or better. There are other requirements, too, such as a public exhibition.
All high school students must take one credit of art to graduate unless they are pursuing an emphasis in the arts.
The high school offers other diplomas "with emphasis," but visual or performing arts diplomas are the most popular, high school Principal Mike Knezevich said.
The high school offers concert band, jazz band, women's choir, mixed choir, Pottery 1 and 2, Photo 1 and 2, Drawing and Painting 1 and 2, Drama 1 and 2, Tech Theater 1 and 2 and Musical Theater 1 and 2.
"We offer, across the board, so many classes," Knezevich said. "I think we are doing a pretty good job with the resources we have. There are always little tweaks within the curriculum. For example, in Photo 2, we are trying to move more digital because it's movement with technology."
Wants versus needs
Guitar is one of the classes Knezevich is considering adding to the high school curriculum. The popularity of pottery and photography likely will warrant additional sections in the future, he added.
The high school has slightly more flexibility because students have more freedom to develop a schedule, but priorities for reading, writing, math and science remain high.
The introduction of state standards and national requirements in core classes requires the district to focus even more attention on meeting students' needs in those areas, officials said. A parent-initiated desire to increase foreign language requirements at Steamboat's elementary and middle schools takes additional time away from the arts.
"I'd love to offer more, but we are maxed with time in a day," Bishop said. "That's why I'm amazed that, as an eighth-grade student, I could take all my cores and musical theater and band or a course of foreign language and choir and musical theater. I'm amazed how much we offer. I don't know how long I can keep doing that."
Some parents want foreign language to be required at all grade levels, and others want their children in more P.E. classes.
"What has to give?" Bishop said. "You pick it. We do the best we can to offer a potpourri of opportunities for the kids. That's what we strive for."
Steamboat is one of the smallest Class 4A schools in the state with 650 students in high school.
By comparison, Summit High School has 858 students, Glenwood Springs has 696 students, Air Academy near Colorado Springs has 1,536 students and Cherry Creek in Denver has 3,661 students.
Steamboat offers one art class per 38 students. Glenwood Springs offers one art class per 36.6 students. Summit's ratio is 1-to-34, and Cherry Creek is 1-to-89, said Knezevich, who is in the process of evaluating the high school's arts offerings.
"In a perfect world, you'd have music and art every day and choir every day and get introduced to instruments earlier than fifth grade," Rusthoi said. "It would be required, not an option, and there would be a full orchestra and full band and a full-time art director like an athletics director.
"The school district is caught between a rock and a hard place, but I do think music and art are designated parts of school curriculum, whereas sports are not. Why do we have an artificial turf field for a small portion of kids who play football versus a district-wide strings program? Those are the hard questions for somebody to sit down and answer."
Although most often recognized for its football use, the artificial turf field is used by numerous high school sports teams.
Superintendent Donna Howell, who also is a member of the Arts Committee, hears the complaints from students, parents, faculty and community members about the district not offering choir in sixth and seventh grades and about the lack of a high school orchestra. The high school offered orchestra before the school year started but not enough students enrolled, Knezevich said.
Howell agreed that the district needs to look at expanding the visual, performing and fine arts offerings, but she doesn't think "a school system our size can do it all."
Ideally, it wouldn't have to.
Howell and Rusthoi believe a partnership between the school district and the community could satisfy many parents and community members. The community likely has a better chance of financing and building a performance arts center, a glaring need in the community, Rusthoi said.
But, Rusthoi thinks the school district should be a leader in terms of developing curriculum and structure.
Students would perform for the community, and community members could be used for instruction and expertise. After all, Rusthoi said, the arts opportunities for adults in Steamboat is vast considering its population.
Rusthoi said the next step for the Arts Committee is putting together a survey to see what the community wants in its schools and to put together district-wide comparisons similar to what Knezevich is doing for the high school.
"I do think there is something missing in the Steamboat Springs School District in terms of support that could be given in developing musicians and artists," Rusthoi said. "With that said, I do understand the challenge they face in offering what we want to see. The right way to go is a collaboration with the district and community. Right now, the two are very separate. The school is up to what it's up to, and the community has created what it has created on its own.
"We don't have an umbrella holding us all together and creating a quote-unquote curriculum, and that's what I think this committee is trying to do."