Opening Minds Through the Arts (OMA) is a program that has been in the Tucson Unified School District since 1999, and it's been a great success story, incorporating the arts into elementary and middle schools' core curricula. Joan Ashcraft is the director of fine and performing arts for TUSD and manages OMA. For more information, visit www.omaproject.org.

Why was OMA created?

OMA was created by some TUSD principals, artists, arts teachers and myself. We did it in response to the No Child Left Behind legislation. We wanted to show the educational folks that the arts are essential to learning. There had been a lot of national research showing that many college students credited their success in college (to) fine-arts instruction. We wanted to actually document with TUSD students that this is true—that the arts do make a difference in learning. We had some private money the first year in which we were able to begin a study using (people from the) UA as the head researchers.

How does OMA work in schools?

OMA schools operate at different levels. Bronze: There is an arts-integration specialist at school. Silver: There is an arts-integration specialist and some artists who work with the children. Gold has the full implementation of all of these components.

Where did the money come from for such a large project?

H. Eugene Jones was responsible. He had been president of the Tucson Symphony (Orchestra) board. His frustration was seeing that the opera and the Tucson Museum of Art and UApresents and all these wonderful institutions that provide educational experiences for our children didn't collaborate. That was his initial thought. He went to a national symphony conference and popped into a room (where people were) talking about the Bolton School District in North Carolina, where they used a symphony group to play on a regular basis for students. It increased their ability in language arts. He actually sent six of us back to see it ... and we came away thinking that we could do better and create something using not just music, but all the art forms ... to do something that would transform education for students and also boost teachers' ability to instruct in a creative way and not feel so tied by the restrictions of No Child Left Behind.


So we started off first doing research with the UA. We were told we wouldn't see results for three years. We saw results within the first year. We saw some significant differences, and children were feeling better about themselves, and since they were feeling better about themselves, they were willing to take more risks in trying new things—in particular, we saw it in the math and (students) feeling more confident that they could understand how to do math and develop their vocabulary and be creative in writing original stories and so forth.

When did you begin to get national recognition?

After the first year, the U.S. Department of Education put out a grant (that) we applied for, because we thought it was right up our alley. ... We got a million-dollar grant around a three-year period. We then formally set up with three different TUSD schools. So we had this money that came in, and the U.S. Department of Education came in and said, "We love the work you're doing with the UA, but to validate it and make it more significant, you need research to be done outside of Arizona."

Who did your research then?

WestEd, since 2000. ... The most interesting information we learned was that math scores of Hispanic male students improved in second-grade, we believe from the dance instruction. The children were learning dance patterns—adding and subtracting very quickly, actually putting themselves, their whole body, into these patterns, so they could physically feel it.

Was OMA affected by the overrides that didn't pass earlier this month?

We can't offer arts instruction in every school, at any level. ... But thanks to the OMA Foundation, Title I money and going out and raising money, we are able to provide for TUSD and will be able to provide something—not fully, of course, but we'll be able to do something. ... Every child in an OMA gold school gets the OMA program and is exposed to art, dance, music, drama and creative writing. Opening Minds Through the Arts was not an incidental title; we wanted children to see the world not just in one way, but in varied ways, thinking about the creative solutions for some of our great world problems and thinking about how to collaborate and work with a diversity of people.

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