Reaching a crescendo? WUES parents take on principal over lack of music, art education
Story and photos by Carlos Aguilar
Arts are usually the gracious part of student life, balancing the pressures of growing academic demands and high stakes tests even in grade school.
At West University Elementary School, arts education — or rather the lack of it — has become a point of contention as parents struggle to bring music and visual arts to the regular curriculum.
Parents say the highly ranked school hasn’t had full-time art classes since its certified art teacher was let go after budget cuts six years ago. Despite their pleas, they say, no replacement has been hired by Principal John Threet.
Emily Smith, who has three children at WUES, tried to make an arts education presentation at the November PTO meeting. “The meeting was adjourned, and I wasn’t sure what parliamentary procedure permitted that,” she said.
When she announced that she was going to try again at the December meeting and Essentials asked to come along with a group of parent supporters, we were encouraged to do so.
But although Smith was finally heard — although photos showed PTO leaders and Threet ignoring her — Essentials was not allowed in, told by school staff that media was not permitted.
When we said we would wait to talk to Threet after the meeting about arts at the school, we were told he would not be available. We left a note requesting an interview but never heard back.
Parents were more than willing to talk, though.
Smith worries that the focus at West U should be on development of the whole child. “I’m concerned that there is an imbalance in our school,” she said. “When our children don’t get art and music education, they don’t learn about meaningful self-expression.”
In the meantime, the only arts and music available for all students at WUES is the “Hands-on Arts” program organized by parent volunteers who can only provide arts appreciation projects five to six times a year, they explained.
Hands-on Art director Judy Cheng says the volunteer parents are limited in what kind of instruction they can provide. “We don’t teach them technique. We try to give a little bit of art history. We’re not art teachers, but we have to prepare 45-minute lesson plans to do something engaging with the students. We need a certified art teacher.”
Cheng says the children’s lack of knowledge about such basics as colors is disturbing. “They don’t know about primary colors and how to mix them to get the color they want,” she said.
Cheng’s daughter, Laura, who graduated from West University Elementary School and is now attending Pin Oak Middle School, is happy to say that at Pin Oak she is now taking dance and choir during regular class periods. “It would have helped if I had had regular art at West U,” she said.
The second opportunity for student involvement in the arts at West U Elementary is the school’s choir. But parents point out that it’s an after school activity for a relatively small number of only fourth- and fifth-graders in the 1,200-pupil school. That program is also parent-led.
Parent Beth Lane explained that the big picture for West University students and the school itself is disturbing as parents are forced to go outside the school to provide piecemeal arts education.
“We’re surrounded by schools that are just as competitive as we are — Roberts, Mark Twain, Condit and River Oaks — (have) art and music programs, and we don’t. They have good test scores, too. WUES is zoned to Pershing, and that’s an arts magnet. (Students are) faced with not knowing how to do art, and they walk in into an art class and do not know what to do.”
And Lane has an even broader concern: “Anything that makes the school look bad, such as not having a real fine arts program — if more people knew, (that) could bring down real estate values, which should be of concern to every resident in West U whether they go to school or not.”
Beth’s daughter, Susie, who is in the fourth grade at West U, says she would like to have regular art classes at her school: “I like doing Hands On Art, but I wish there was more art.”
Cheng said the time has long passed to restore arts education. “Originally, we thought this would be temporary after budget cuts were resolved,” she said.
As for Threet, he never responded to Essentials’ request for an interview.
Feeling thwarted so far in their efforts to deal with their administration, the pro-arts parents may appeal to a higher authority. Houston ISD’s new superintendent, Richard Carranza, is a professional mariachi musician and vocal advocate of arts programming in every district school.