A+ Denver finds art deserts in DPS

In the same way there are food deserts in certain corners of bustling cities, there are also areas devoid of art opportunities for young people.

Second-graders at the Polaris Program at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O'Keefe.
Second-graders at the Polaris Program at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Planting the seeds of creativity in these art deserts in Denver is what A+ Denver says it aims to do through a task force on quality arts in Denver Public Schools. The nonprofit school reform outfit on Thursday released a draft report on the state of arts education in DPS, believed to be the first of its kind.

“It is meant to be a snapshot of what is currently in DPS in terms of arts education, and a description of why arts education is so important,” said Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Denver. “You’ll find the recommendations are purposefully blank at this point. We wanted to share the report with A+ members and the public to get ideas, thoughts and feedback.”

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A+ Denver researchers uncovered pockets of greatness – most notably, Denver School of the Arts – but they also found areas where students have few opportunities to learn traditional fine arts, such as painting, sculpture, architecture and music, or modern fine arts like film, photography, design, literary arts and culinary arts.

And, when DSA’s enrollment was closely examined, few students from high-poverty areas won coveted spots at the school during its “blind auditions” process. Last year, 1,103 students applied for 213 spots at DSA. The school has not consistently admitted DPS students from a single school west of I-25 for at least the past three years, the report found.

“It’s really challenging to find kids in Denver who play violin or cello well enough to get into DSA,” Schoales said. “One of the reasons for that is that there isn’t a DPS elementary school that has a music program that isn’t dependent on parents providing instruments or paying for lessons. I was somewhat shocked by how dramatic some of the data was.”

The report found these weaknesses in DPS’ artistic course offerings:

  • Spread thin – some breadth and little depth
  • Inequality of access to strong programs
  • Few clear pipelines for students studying the arts or a specific artistic discipline
  • Under-utilization of Denver’s arts community to assist in schools
  • Few measures of quality of arts instruction

Schoales said studies have proven the value of artistic endeavors on a person’s life and future success.

“We believe that providing a systemwide high-quality arts education supports academic achievement and attainment and contributes to overall student success,” states the report, titled Arts Education in Denver: Envisioning Excellence.

Arts in DPS lack benchmarks

The document laments the fact that DPS has few, if any, explicit goals, benchmarks or measurements when it comes to arts instruction.

For instance, researchers found that Denver only requires 10 semester hours of the arts for high school graduation, which can be satisfied by taking arts or career and technical education. Researchers also found instances of teachers with arts credentials being hired to teach non-related subjects, such as gym and history.

DPS elementary students should be receiving a minimum of two hours of arts instruction per week, the report states, based on current district funding and policy.

But, “In practice, there is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest students are not always getting this level of arts instruction,” the report stated.

The report also found that Denver spends $256 per pupil on arts instruction. In 2008, SRI, a nonprofit research group based in California, looked at arts spending at 10 exemplary schools in Minnesota, Kentucky, Massachusetts and New Jersey. It determined that most “exemplar” schools spend between $150 and $350 per pupil on arts teachers’ salaries.

The A+ report is calling for closer scrutiny of what students in DPS are learning in art through the use of end-of-the-year portfolios or other measures, such as differentiated diplomas.

Growth in state’s creative industries

According to the report, Colorado’s economy is increasingly driven by creative industries.

A 2008 Creative Industries report found employment in the state’s creative economy increased by more than 8,000 jobs, or 7 percent, compared to a 6 percent growth in creative enterprise employment in the U.S. from 2002 to 2007.

Yet fewer than 1 percent of total DPS graduates going to college in-state appear to be majoring in design-related fields. In 2011, about 4.4 percent of DPS public school graduates who went on to college in state declared majors in the arts, compared to 8 percent from Denver private schools.

That isn’t to say some Denver schools aren’t stepping up to the plate. The report singles out schools with strong arts focuses, including Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Smith Renaissance School and the Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Other schools – such as Odyssey, Brown, McMeen, Montclair, Steck, Steele, Lincoln, Cory and Polaris – also have strong reputations for their arts programs, the report found.

Meanwhile, CEC Middle College has programs driven by the creative industries. And, over the past two years, East High School, traditionally recognized for its film program, has tripled the number of students taking its Advanced Placement studio art class. Almost a third of East arts students are pursuing art at the college level.

Schoales said A+ Denver’s goal is to come up with a set of recommendations in coming weeks to boost the arts in the rest of the 80,000-student district.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”