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To Boost Attendance, Milwaukee Schools Revive Art, Music And Gym

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In the stuffy, little gymnasium at Richard Kluge Elementary in Milwaukee, 16 boys and girls are stretching, jumping and marching to music.

Two years ago, the school had no gym, art or music classes due to budget cuts. But now, Kluge students get a so-called "special" class three days a week.

Milwaukee Public Schools is one of several school systems across the country — including Los Angeles, San Diego and Nashville, Tenn. — that are re-investing in subjects like art and physical education. The Milwaukee school district is hiring new specialty teachers with the hope of attracting more families and boosting academic achievement.

Music teacher Angie Dvorak is one of the teachers that's been effected. Last year, Dvorak was part time and traveled between schools. This year, she's stays at Kluge all day, teaching music upstairs from the school's gymnasium.

Dvorak says she's seen a different in her students: "I get to have them for class more frequently, which is awesome because their music skills are shooting through the roof this year."

Over the past two years, Milwaukee Public Schools has hired nearly 100 new specialty teachers and, this fall, it will add 50 more. Gregory Thornton, the outgoing superintendent, sees this as critical to learning.

"I personally believe that it's a vital part of the balance of a young person's educational agenda," Thornton says.

The district has been able to re-hire teachers mainly because of money it saved by cutting employee benefits. Thornton hopes ramping up art, music and physical education will help stem the exodus of city kids to suburban schools.

"You want to create something where our families want to re-invest in our school district," Thornton says. "And at the end of the day, I want kids excited about getting up in the morning."

Others are hopeful that there will be a payoff on standardized tests. Right now, only 20 percent of Milwaukee district students are proficient in math and only 16 percent in reading.

James Catterall, professor emeritus at UCLA, says his 12-year study of 12,000 kids found that arts education helps lift academic achievement, especially for children living in poverty.

"These poor kids will show pretty robust gains in not only test scores but pro-social behavior [and] motivation of one sort or another," says Catterall. His research shows these kids are "going further in education generally, whether it's graduate school or just simply getting into college."

However, Allison Hausman, who works for the urban education non-profit Education Resource Strategies, cautions that new investments should be focused where they'll yield the greatest results. She suggests that could mean hiring more math teachers.

"It's tempting to just undo the cuts, but new funds are an opportunity for districts to fundamentally transform the way they use people, time and money," Hausman says.

Miguel Sanchez, the principal at Lincoln Avenue Elementary in Milwaukee, says that when there are arts and physical education "specials" the students show up. This is important because Sanchez says his school "fails to meet expectations" on measures like reading achievement and absenteeism.

"They don't miss a special, number one," says Sanchez. "Parental involvement grows, you go to a sport activity, you go to an art activity, you go to a recital — they are there."

Next year, Lincoln will have full-time gym, art, and music teachers, and students will get a break from the three R's every school day.

Copyright 2014 Milwaukee Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wuwm.com/.

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