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    The Innovation Agenda and the Arts, Part One 

    English class was OK.  Math was all right.  But for Sam, it was upper school music that kept him going. “It was more challenging, and allowed more individuality and freedom,” he explained.  He was in the school concert band, rock band, and pit band, as well as the district-wide All City Band. Music, he said, “made school more engaging in ways that other classes did not.”  Now happily in high school, Sam is taking piano class along with his world history, geometry, and physics, and is planning to go to college.  Without the Innovation Agenda, most of this would not have occurred.

    Implemented in September of 2012, Cambridge’s Innovation Agenda instituted structural changes that transformed the face of the arts at middle grades. Historically, the elementary schools had included grades K-8, with arts programs sparse at the middle grades.  Flying in the face of the testing mania that caused so many districts to double down on math and English while cutting back on the arts, Cambridge switched to a system of K-5 schools feeding four “Upper” schools (grades 6-8), while enriching arts programs.     

    Previously, much arts instruction was concentrated at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, Cambridge’s award-winning high school. Middle school students had taken visual art classes once a week, taught by a teacher who usually saw every child in all nine grades of the school.  Most schools offered general music once a week in grades K-4 only, then instrumental music in grades 5-8, taught by a trio of teachers who traveled among five or six schools each week.  There were no bands or orchestras except when teachers could gather children together from their classes at the end of a semester.  No theater or dance was offered.  

    The Innovation Agenda changed everything.  Visual art and music in the Upper Schools began to meet twice per week.  Students could choose among electives including Drama, Band, Orchestra, Chorus, and an array of visual arts specialties. Instrumental lessons could now be taught in very small groups, allowing more individual attention to each student. This also meant that music teachers could teach more instruments.  Before, the brass teacher only had time enough in each school to teach trumpet and trombone.  Now he began to teach French horn, baritone, bass clarinet, percussion, and oboe as well.  Music ensembles grew at each school, so that when Band, Orchestra, and Chorus festivals were instituted bringing together groups from all the upper schools, the stage was flooded with approximately 200 students for each, indicating that 60% of upper school students district-wide were part of an ensemble.  At Rindge Avenue Upper School, 80% of students have chosen to be part of the music program.  At Cambridge Street Upper School they now have a 50 piece marching band with a drumline and color guard.  Each upper school presents an annual play or musical, cast from students, that draws crowds of parents.  Hallways display middle school student art.  Cambridge has begun to send students to the Junior Eastern District competitions in music.

    Most important, however, was the effect this infusion of arts had on overall teaching and learning experiences.  Students described it this way:

    The arts...

    “...made school overall more enjoyable.”

    “...made my middle school experience much better than I thought it would be.”

     “...gave me something to do before and after school.”

    “...helped me meet new people.”

    “...[were] the highlight of my week.”

    “...helped me grow.”


    Teachers describe the effects of having time to offer an enriched curriculum:

    “We have time to challenge students with more difficult music and they have come up to the challenge.” Lessons are now a full grade more advanced.

    “Rehearsals are now real rehearsals instead of a combination of rehearsal and learning notes.”  Notes are learned in small group lessons.

    Visual arts teachers engage students in longer-term projects that allow for “more individually tailored assignments.” 

    In addition, the quality of performances has advanced significantly. The increased investment in the subject causes students to work harder and take pride in what they do.  Said one teacher: “The music is sounding much more polished.  [A musician] came up to me after a concert, smiled, and said, ’That was real music,’ not just students trying to make music.”


    ** All quotations taken from interviews with CPS teachers, students, and parents.


    This post also appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle.

    Posted by jyoung On May 11, 2016 at 12:05 PM