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Difficult decisions to close and merge St. Paul schools ahead of the 2022-23 school year came with a tantalizing goal: Deliver a well-rounded education to elementary students that would include the arts, science and other subjects taught by specialist teachers.

It didn't turn out that way — not in the first year, at least.

Only about half of 40 elementary schools in the state's second-largest district provided or were on track to provide a well-rounded education in 2022-23, according to a review by a district official tasked with helping principals reach that goal.

Expectations around the delivery of arts programs, in particular, have dimmed. State law requires districts to offer courses in two of four areas — visual arts, music, dance or theater — and to expose elementary students to a third, under St. Paul's interpretation.

But to cover three arts, and find and pay specialists in other areas, as well, "that's nearly impossible," Matthew Sylva, program manager in the district's Office of Teaching and Learning, said last week.

As a result, even in schools that offer a broader array of classes, they aren't always taught by specially licensed staff when meeting the arts goals.

That is unacceptable to Michelle Wall, a district parent and former teacher who has made the offering of a well-rounded education a personal crusade. She has spoken at numerous school board meetings, most recently in June when the final report on the "Envision SPPS" closings and mergers devoted just two pages to the well-rounded issue.

"Why haven't leaders listened to years of the community demanding strong arts funding and programming?" Wall asked board members in a long list of questions. "Why have leaders not connected strong arts programming to student mental health and wellness?"

'How we build community'

For years, Thomas Draskovic, a Lakota language and culture teacher at St. Paul's American Indian Magnet School, has hosted a drum class for students of all ethnicities — and sees the immediate benefits.

He said last week that it was one thing to teach kids about the power of a circle and a drum, another entirely to have them perform and experience that cross-cultural connection.

"It is great when you see that look in their faces," he said. "The drum becomes a part of how we build community, and they want to share it with others."

American Indian Magnet School also has licensed physical education and visual arts instructors.

Despite her years of advocacy, Wall said she did not know that a well-rounded education would be a cornerstone of the Envision SPPS proposal until she received a Google alert for a Star Tribune story on the July 2021 rollout of the plan.

"I was getting calls saying, 'You did it. You did it. We're getting well-rounded schools,'" she said in a recent interview.

The district said then of its intentions: "Building on a deep understanding of the core essentials of reading, writing and math, students are taught by educators with expertise in science, the arts (visual arts, music, dance, theater) and physical education while having access to an array of enrichment opportunities."

An Envision SPPS workgroup made clear the benefits of having licensed arts instructors. Referenced, too, was the Anoka-Hennepin school district's strategy of ensuring specialist teachers in each of its 25 elementary schools.

That district — the state's largest — provides students in grades K-5 with an hour each of art, music and physical education, and 30 minutes of media instruction, on a weekly basis. Each course is led by a teacher licensed in the subject area, spokesman Jim Skelly said last week.

Wall's analysis of St. Paul's offerings found that only one in three schools with grades K-5 arts programming had two licensed arts specialists.

More work ahead

St. Paul has ratcheted up its attention to the issue with the appointments of Sylva and Maijue Xiong Lochungvu, assistant director of the Office of Teaching and Learning — both of whom came aboard after the Envision SPPS plan was approved.

Last summer, Sylva set aside the district's previous practice of having principals self-report which courses were taught and by whom. Instead, he conducted one-on-one interviews, filed preliminary reports and then at the start of the school year recommended ways to fill gaps in instruction — perhaps with field trips or artist residencies, he said.

Some activities were funded with federal COVID relief dollars.

In defense of not requiring licensed arts instructors, Xiong Lochungvu pointed to the shortages afflicting many areas of teaching. Four Seasons A+ Elementary, which has touted its dance program, posted for a licensed teacher for those classes but went a year without one, Sylva said.

Interviews with principals have begun anew, and Sylva said he learned "right off the bat" that Adams Spanish Immersion School has met its arts requirements for 2023-24 with specialized instruction in theater, visual arts and music.

So, can families expect next year's well-rounded education report to show growth?

"We hope so," Xiong Lochungvu said.