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The Arts In Every Classroom: A Video Library K-5

Three Leaders at Arts-Based Schools

Three administrators provide instructional leadership and solve day–to–day challenges at arts–based schools serving diverse student populations. In Brooklyn, principal Martha Rodriguez–Torres describes her role as "politician, social worker, parent, and police officer," and says that her primary responsibility is to "provide teachers the resources they need to fulfill the program." In Georgia, principal Sandra McGary–Ervin encourages use of the arts to achieve the school's priority goal of literacy. And in Denver, assistant principal Rory Pullens uses his own arts background to ensure that the arts play a prominent role in day–to–day learning.

View Transcript

Assistant Principal Rory Pullens of Smith Renaissance School of the Arts in Denver, Colorado.

Administrators of three successful arts-based schools share their insights and practical management strategies:

  • Principal Martha Rodriguez-Torres leveraged her approach to arts-based learning to transform the low-performing P.S. 156 into The Waverly School of the Arts, a source of pride and accomplishment for students and parents in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Principal Sandra McGary-Ervin oversaw the conversion of 50-year-old Harmony Leland Elementary School in Mableton, Georgia, into a school for the arts — setting high expectations and gaining the support of teachers and parents. As part of its commitment to the arts, the school provides a violin and violin instruction to all 485 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • At Smith Renaissance School of the Arts in Denver, Colorado, assistant principal Rory Pullens uses his own experience in the arts to bring a personal touch to the day-to-day management of the school. When the school converted to an arts-based program, approximately 50 percent of the teaching staff transferred to other schools. Those who remained, Pullens says, became the core of today’s committed staff.

Featured People

Who’s Who
(In order of appearance)

  • Martha Rodriguez-Torres,principal, P.S. 156, The Waverly School of the Arts, Brooklyn, New York (See interview below)
  • Oswaldo Malave, assistant principal, P.S. 156, The Waverly School of the Arts, Brooklyn, New York
  • Janine Eckles, second-grade teacher, P.S. 156, The Waverly School of the Arts, Brooklyn, New York
  • Sandra McGary-Ervin, principal, Harmony Leland Elementary School, Mableton, Georgia (See interview below)
  • Mary Perkerson, visual art teacher, Harmony Leland Elementary School, Mableton, Georgia
  • Tracy Stallings, parent, Harmony Leland Elementary School, Mableton, Georgia
  • Ramona Jones Hardaway, parent, Harmony Leland Elementary School, Mableton, Georgia
  • Kathy Bryson, parent, Harmony Leland Elementary School, Mableton, Georgia
  • Rory Pullens, assistant principal, Smith Renaissance School of the Arts, Denver, Colorado (See Interview below)
  • Sylvia Bookhardt, arts coordinator, Smith Renaissance School of the Arts, Denver, Colorado
  • Kelly Harbolt, drama teacher, Smith Renaissance School of the Arts, Denver, Colorado
  • Suzanne Hewitt, visual art teacher, Smith Renaissance School of the Arts, Denver, Colorado

Featured Schools

P.S. 156, The Waverly School of the Arts

  • Location: Brooklyn, New York
  • Web site:
  • Principal: Martha Rodriguez-Torres
  • Assistant Principal: Oswaldo Malave
  • Featured teachers and artists: Janine Eckles, second-grade teacher; Leonore Gordon, visiting writer, Teachers & Writers Collaborative; Scott Pivnik, dance and movement teacher; Caren Plummer, visiting dance artist, Lotus Music & Dance; Kojo Plummer, visiting musician, Lotus Music & Dance; Goldie Rich, African strand team leader; Allison Sicuranza, first-grade teacher; Diane Thomas, first-grade teacher; Laura Parkhurst, first-grade teacher; Suzanne Ramos, first-grade teacher
  • Grades: K–6
  • Number of students: 752
  • Number of faculty: 70
  • Demographic information: Ninety-four percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Student population is 80 percent African-American, 19 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent other.

P.S. 156, also known as The Waverly School of the Arts, is located in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood called Brownsville. It serves a student population of mostly African-Americans and Latinos. The school’s mission is to establish and maintain an environment that is stimulating, challenging, and nurturing. Parents and school personnel collaborate to foster a sense of well-being and growth among all children.

With a strong emphasis on individual, child-centered learning and ongoing student assessment, the commitment of the school’s faculty and staff to personal and academic growth has paid off with academic improvements, notably in reading achievement. Additionally, with funds from the Center for Arts Education in New York City, P.S. 156 enhances its curriculum with instrumental music, dance, and movement.

Close collaboration with local art partners who have specific expertise in multiculturalism and the language arts exposes students to a variety of arts organizations and activities. For example, Lotus Music & Dance provides traditional dancers, musicians, and visual artists from around the world to collaborate and team-teach with faculty. The Teachers & Writers Collaborative provides writers to work with classroom teachers in the use of creative writing across the curriculum. The local teachers’ union has established a Teacher Center to provide ongoing staff development to school staff in curriculum integration. These efforts encourage students to strive for excellence academically, socially, and emotionally.

Information provided by P.S. 156, The Waverly School of the Arts. Current as of February 2002.


Harmony Leland Elementary School

  • Location: Mableton, Georgia
  • Web site:
  • Principal: Sandra McGary-Ervin
  • Featured teachers: Barrett Jackson, string specialist; Crystal Peters, music specialist; Jermal Riggins, second-grade teacher; Mary Perkerson, visual art specialist; Denise Walker, first-grade teacher; Gillian Conner, fourth-grade teacher
  • Grades: PK–5
  • Number of students: 485
  • Number of faculty: 54
  • Demographic information: Fifty-seven percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Student population is 60 percent African-American, 26 percent Caucasian, 10 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent other. Student transiency rate is 17 percent.

Beginning in 1998, Harmony Leland engaged in intensive self-study and researched best practices. As a result of this exploration, the elementary school focused on implementing school improvement goals to turn around declining student achievement. A major transformation at Harmony Leland led to significant initiatives addressing academics, character education, and parent and community involvement. The fine arts, in particular, are used to reach students at Harmony Leland. The school became a Leonard Bernstein Center for Artful Learning and began a violin program that includes every child in the school.

Harmony Leland’s mission is to provide all students with rigorous and relevant academic and fine arts educational experiences, which promote excellence and a life-long love of learning. The school actively fosters appreciation and acceptance of diversity.

Harmony Leland’s school population has varied ethnicity and socioeconomic diversity. The school seeks ways to bridge school and community, based on the belief that facilitation among school, parents, and community is key to school success. Partnerships and collaborations among students, parents, community members, businesses, and teachers help further the school’s goals.

Harmony Leland provides a variety of opportunities during and after school for students to develop knowledge, skills, and experiences. Examples include Drop Everything and Read; Breakthrough to Literacy; and honors programs such as honors chorus, honors art, and honors violin.

Information provided by Harmony Leland Elementary School. Current as of February 2002.


Smith Renaissance School of the Arts

  • Location: Denver, Colorado
  • Web site:
  • Principal: Joyce Simmons
  • Featured teachers: Sylvia Bookhardt, music teacher; Kelly Harbolt, drama teacher; Suzanne Hewitt, visual art teacher
  • Grades: K–5
  • Number of students: 530
  • Number of faculty: 37
  • Demographic information: Student population is 70 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Caucasian, and 2 percent other. Ninety percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Annual mobility rate is 118 percent.

Smith Renaissance School of the Arts is a magnet school focusing in the arts. The arts education program design was implemented at the start of the 1997–98 school year. Smith employs arts staff members who work with classroom teachers in a team approach. Lessons are consistent with state mandates and are tied to national standards.

Smith’s mission is to develop each student’s abilities, nurturing both higher academic achievement and personal development, through exposure to the arts. The school’s goals are to improve academic performance, increase parent-community involvement, and infuse the arts into all aspects of the curriculum to improve achievement. The curriculum is designed around the performing and visual arts. Students explore programs in each of the arts through third grade. Fourth- and fifth-grade students can develop their areas of choice while continuing their education in other areas.

Because Smith is a magnet school, students who have been accepted come from within and outside of the normal school boundaries.

Smith is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The school has partnerships with many organizations that provide support, such as the Denver School of the Arts, the Colorado Children’s Chorale, Ready to Succeed, the Shaka Foundation, and the Colorado Youth Symphony.

Information provided by Smith Renaissance School of the Arts. Current as of February 2002.

Featured Approaches

Martha Rodriguez-Torres’ Approach

P.S. 156, The Waverly School of the Arts, integrates the arts across all curriculum areas and uses dance, music, and other art forms from many cultures to broaden the students’ world view.

Maria Rodriguez-Torres describes her role as “politician, social worker, parent, and police officer” and says that her primary responsibility now is to “provide teachers the resources they need to fulfill the program.”

She works closely with assistant principal Oswaldo Malave, sharing responsibility for all grades, kindergarten through six. She spends a large part of her day visiting classrooms and talking with teachers and children.


High Expectations

According to Sandra McGary-Ervin, Harmony Leland’s highest priority is literacy. The arts are used in a variety of ways to encourage interest in reading. For example, visual art teacher Mary Perkerson praises the school’s Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) program and says that students use reading time in her classroom to learn more about art and artists.

Harmony Leland’s violin instruction program promotes self-esteem, discipline, and other skills that support the school’s guiding value — excellence.


Day-to-Day Management

Rory Pullens spends much of his time visiting classes to, in his words, “see what’s going on” and provide ideas and support to teachers. Teachers in arts-based programs, he says, must be able to deal with classrooms that are full of creative energy. These classrooms tend to be more active than those with traditional kinds of instruction. Arts-based schools also must be flexible in accommodating projects that do not fit into traditional 40-minute periods.

In the Smith Renaissance arts-based program, Pullens works with arts coordinator Sylvia Bookhardt and the school’s arts specialist teachers to explore ways of building effective teams with classroom teachers. “Arts are not something that should be extra for students,” he concludes. “The arts are what development of a child is all about.”

Who Should Watch This Program

This program is a good resource for staff development for principals, arts coordinators, project team leaders, and others involved in managing arts-based learning. Teachers who have aspirations for advancement to school administration also will find this program valuable.

Other audiences for this program might include:

  • teachers and leaders who are interested in increasing the role of the arts in their schools;
  • arts specialists and classroom teachers, to support team-building; and
  • school board and central office leaders, to acquaint them with strategies, challenges, and rewards of managing arts-based programs.

Before Watching

This program explores management practices in three elementary schools that replaced their traditional curriculums with a schoolwide emphasis on the arts.

As you watch this program, consider these questions:

  • What steps would school administrators take to begin the transformation to arts-based teaching and learning?
  • What challenges would an administrator expect to encounter in converting to an arts-based school?
  • What challenges were encountered by each of the administrators in this program?
  • How did the administrators address these challenges?
  • What new skills would an administrator need to manage a successful transition from a traditional to an arts-based curriculum?

Consider the similarities and differences in the approaches used by schools in this program — teaching arts subjects as core subject areas and integrating the arts with other subject areas:

  • Can you find examples of how each approach is used by the schools?
  • Can both approaches be used in the same curriculum? Look for examples of where this happens.

Administrators in this program credit the arts for helping students reach academic standards and other goals. Look for examples of benefits cited by the administrators. Consider what benefits arts-based learning could bring to your school.


Martha Rodriguez-Torres

Principal, P.S. 156, The Waverly School of the Arts, Brooklyn, New York

Martha Rodriguez-Torres has been the principal of P.S. 156 for the past eight years. Prior to that, she was an assistant principal for five years. She also has held a variety of positions within the New York City Board of Education, including classroom teacher, staff developer, and early childhood coordinator.

Q. What kind of staff development do you use to help classroom teachers use the arts?

A. Most of the staff development for teachers takes place via the arts planning teams [made up of staff, professional artists, and parents], workshops, and staff meetings. Our staff also attends citywide conferences around the arts.

Q. What training is provided to teachers, arts specialists, and visiting artists to help them learn to collaborate more effectively?

A. To help the team collaborate we have had retreats as well as in-house workshops on how to plan.

Q. What are some of the key management issues (e.g., facilities, time management, intrastaff communications, etc.) particular to running an arts-based school?

A. The key management issue has been scheduling time for teams to meet. Another issue has been the space available for performances, since we did not have an auditorium. When we moved into our new building in September 2002, that was no longer an issue.

Q. In what ways do the arts help extend or support a multicultural curriculum?

A. The arts help to support our multicultural curriculum in that we teach arts education using a multicultural approach. This means that we study a particular culture for eight weeks at a time and integrate that in all curriculum areas. We study not only the art forms of that culture, but also its artists, literature, history, science, and social studies.

Q. How are arts programs at P.S. 156 funded?

A. Our programs are funded by the board of education under Project Arts as well as through private funding sources such as a grant from the Center for Arts Education through the Annenberg Challenge for Arts Education.

Q. As a principal, how involved do you get in obtaining funds for your arts programs?

A. My involvement with funding is critical, because I have to take funds from all of our monies to support the arts. That entails believing that literacy is not limited to being gained from textbooks. Thus, library funds are used to purchase books that support our program, and software monies are used to buy arts-related software.

Q. Who makes sure that the national and state standards mesh with your school’s arts-based curriculum?

A. National and state standards are adhered to and monitored by the school administration. Additionally, teachers are aware of the standards and must post them on all work displayed by students.

Q. How did P.S. 156 become an arts-based school?

A. I do not have an arts background, but I do have a love for the arts and have always felt that all children regardless of their economic conditions have a right to arts education. P.S. 156 was not an arts-based school when I got here. In fact, it was the worst school in the district. I felt that, due to the low self-esteem of the students, I needed to bring something special that would allow the students to begin to experience success and that that success would then translate into the classroom. We have done that, and now we are a school that others come to in order to learn. The achievement levels of our students have grown and continue to do so.



Sandra McGary-Ervin

Principal, Harmony Leland Elementary School, Mableton, Georgia

Sandra McGary-Ervin came to Cobb County, Georgia, in 1985 to teach special education at North Cobb High School. Later, she was a learner support strategist (curriculum specialist) at that same school. She later served as assistant principal at Griffin Middle School, then as supervisor of the cultural diversity department for the school district. At the time this program was videotaped, she was in her fourth year as principal of Harmony Leland Elementary School.

Q. Why was the decision made to have an elementary school of the arts in this community?

A. Because the area high school is Cobb County’s magnet school for performing arts, it was important for the community to have an elementary school with a similar desire for the arts to be formulated for students. Harmony Leland Elementary School was chosen for this purpose.

Q. What were the biggest challenges in leading Harmony Leland through the transition to an arts-based school?

A. Some of the challenges we faced included the following:

  • Training had to be given to teachers in a school that typically has frequent teacher turnover.
  • There were various staff development needs (e.g., reading, writing, math, and art).
  • There was enormous difficulty balancing regular staff development activity with the needed staff development in arts-based instruction.
  • Of great importance was the need to reassure teachers they could experience success with this model.
  • It is necessary to make sure the teaching staff knows that this is not just one more thing that they have to do. It is important to take the existing curriculum and integrate the arts component into the standards that teachers are responsible for teaching. It is not something new to add on their plate.

Q. How do you communicate your vision for an arts-based school to parents?

A. The following are methods we used to communicate the school’s vision for an arts-based school:

  • Parent-Teacher Association meeting
  • Newsletter
  • Town hall meeting
  • Parents’ active roles in arts-based activities
  • Parent classes

Research data regarding arts-based instruction was presented to parents, and evidence of students’ success was explained.

Q. What is the DEAR program? How did you learn about it? How was it implemented? Why do you use it?

A. DEAR is Drop Everything and Read. This is silent, sustained reading where the student is able to self-select his or her reading text. Self-selection of the text is so important; it motivates kids to read. It is the responsibility of the teacher to make sure there are plenty of texts appropriate for the reading level of the students in the classroom. We do an hour of DEAR time every day. We do it schoolwide each day at 1:45 p.m. for 30 minutes. And each teacher has another 30-minute block of DEAR time in her or his literacy group [reading class]. DEAR is a “best practice” that we have used for many years. Research tells us that the more a child reads, the better reader he or she becomes.



Rory Pullens 

Assistant principal, Smith Renaissance School of the Arts, Denver, Colorado

Rory Pullens was a film/media and journalism major in college and worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood for seven years. He taught high school theatre, speech, and journalism classes in Los Angeles for nine years and ran his own community-based theatrical company. He was at Smith Renaissance School of the Arts for five years, serving initially as a fifth-grade teacher, then as arts coordinator and drama teacher, and then as assistant principal. In 2001, he became principal of Force Elementary School, where visual art and band were added to the existing vocal music class.

Q. What does it mean to be a “school of choice”? How are students selected?

A. “School of choice” simply means that any child who lives anywhere in Denver can apply to attend your school. If there is space and that child qualifies, he or she can attend.

Students usually are selected in order of application. Equal preference is given to any student outside of the school’s normal boundaries.

Q. When and why did Smith Renaissance become a school of the arts?

A. After court-ordered busing ended in 1995, schools were encouraged to come up with different focuses to encourage parental choice. Smith chose the arts because:

  • many staff members had background in the arts;
  • parents selected it as one of their top two choices in a parental survey; and
  • it was a focus that would allow the school to promote positive public relations [which was important since test scores were low].

So, Smith became a school of the arts in 1996.

Q. What were the main challenges of converting to a school of the arts?

A. [There were three main challenges:]

  • Redesigning the physical plant. Space had to be converted for dance, instrumental music, drama, vocal music, and visual arts.
  • Training the staff to understand what being a school of the arts meant. It took a few years to get the right staff members in place who had background and interest in an arts program.
  • Reeducating parents on the differences in an arts program vs. a traditional one. There were many staff development opportunities, parent meetings, and assemblies with students.

Q. How did you choose replacements for the staff who left because of the conversion to a school of the arts?

A. Overall, the staff was excited about becoming a school of the arts. Those who were not [excited] left during that first year. Personnel committees and administration looked for teachers who were willing to participate and promote the arts program. Of course, those teaching the specific arts classes had to have not only the arts experience and training, but the education experience [for elementary kids] as well. Finding such people was no easy task.

Q. Please describe the peer mentoring program at Smith Renaissance.

A. As far as the arts are concerned, each arts teacher interacts with specific grade-level teachers during planning periods and for staff development times to discuss the direction of arts instruction. The arts staff also regularly conducts in-service sessions for the entire staff to promote integration of the arts in the classroom.

Additional Resources

Related Video
Library Programs

Watch these programs for more information on ideas explored in “Three Leaders at Arts-Based Schools”:

Web Resources

  • National Standards for Arts Education
  • State Standards for the Arts


Organizations Mentioned in This Program:

Related Organizations and Resources: