A bald-faced pitch for a local education program with amazing results

This week's column is a bald-faced pitch for Saturday afternoon's First OMA Artist Showcase at the Rincon/University High auditorium. It's a party and fundraiser for Opening Minds Through the Arts, the best education program you never heard of. So shoot me.

OMA, born in Tucson and celebrating its fifth year, brings artists into elementary-school classrooms--not for occasional performances or workshops, but to work with the children twice a week, every week. And what they bring isn't fine arts dropping from the sky, but planned, collaborative lessons that integrate the arts with the core curriculum. Time signatures help fifth-graders with fractions; decoding music and composing libretti helps first-graders read and write. These alternative ways into the curriculum seem to be especially helpful for high-risk students and kids who have to learn English.

At the end of fifth grade at an OMA school, every student is able to read music and play the recorder and violin, and will have made art and participated in theater and dance under the supervision of Tucson professionals. Instructors include members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, the Arizona Opera Chorus, Zuzi Dance Company, the graduate programs of the UA schools of music and dance, Theatrical Mime Theatre and Live Theatre Workshop.

It's a dream come true if you believe that art in the schools is important, but what if you think it should be all about reading, writing and arithmetic? Carolyn Kemmeries, OMA project coordinator, will be delighted to show you the test scores. OMA is grounded in a wealth of cognitive development research, and kids in the program have scored significantly better than kids from otherwise comparable Tucson schools in reading, language and math every time they've been tested.

That's been gratifying, but no surprise to the people who run the program.

"It all started in the spring of 2000, when Gene Jones, then president of the board of directors of the symphony, attended a conference on community orchestras," Kemmeries says. "He heard about a district using a similar approach that was getting great results in a high-risk school."

Jones was so excited about the potential for Tucson's underserved students that he came home and called up Tucson legend and then-chairman of TSO's education committee, Dr. Carroll Rinehart, and the two retirees conspired to form a board and found OMA. They had a pilot program running in two kindergartens by fall; Jones paid all expenses for the first year out of his own pocket. Results in the kindergartens, where more than 80 percent of the students were eligible for the free-lunch program, were so good that the organization won a three-year federal grant to support and expand the program.

OMA furnishes training, supplies instruments and materials, and pays the artists; it originally paid one additional "lead teacher" per school. (TUSD is now picking up the cost of their salaries.) In a state whose spending on schools is 49th or 50th in the nation--it's so hard keeping track of Arizona's disgraces--running OMA takes ingenuity, fervor and lots of grants and donations. The program is now fully implemented in 11 of Tucson's 78 elementary schools, and gearing up in 18 more. It would have been funded throughout TUSD by the override that failed in November's election. That OMA has been able to take root in the blasted soil of Arizona public education is testimony to the drive and conviction of its board and staff--and to its inarguable success. State Superintendent Tom Horne has said that he wants OMA in all Arizona schools, and the program is attracting increasing national attention. The enthusiasm of the parents, kids and teachers is boundless.

"We hear stories about sick children who beg to go to school if it's an OMA day, and teachers who don't want to teach anywhere but in an OMA school after they've tried it. The whole look and feel of our schools is different," Kemmeries says. "You can tell when you walk in the door--this is an interesting, exciting place to be.

"Parents see what it does for their children," she says. "Aside from the academics and the arts, the attention and engagement is wonderful for them. We ask that our artists know the name of every single child they teach."

Saturday, April 9, from 3 to 5 p.m., both professional and budding artists from OMA schools will strut their stuff for their community in honor of visionary and founder Gene Jones, now 88.

"It'll be a lovely afternoon of first-class entertainment and happy kids and great food," says Kemmeries.

Tickets are $50, $35 of which goes directly to program needs and is tax-deductible. Food at the reception following the show will be by Terra Cotta, Westward Look, BlueHouse Catering, Feast on Speedway, Eclectic Cafe, Son's Bakery, Starbucks and LeBuzz. For information and tickets, call 225-4900.

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