Des Moines Public Schools: Art doesn’t have a specific answer

There’s no right answer when it comes to art…and that’s exactly why teachers and administrators in the Des Moines Public Schools feel it’s so important.

As the largest school district in the state, Des Moines Public Schools serves roughly 33,000 students. Whether its visual arts, band, orchestra or choir, students in each grade level are exposed to various styles of art.

At the elementary level, Capitol View Elementary Art Teacher Kris Schmitt spends 55 minutes with each class, every fourth day.

She says her classroom has been a place where students can prosper despite struggling academically.

“If there’s not an exact answer, they don’t have to remember anything,” Schmitt says. “They can just do their own thing and I think kids need that sometimes. It gives them power, makes them feel good and gives them self-esteem.”

At the high school level, Emily Griffin—Des Moines Hoover High School Performing Arts Teacher—says the arts help develop leadership skills, discipline, and accountability.

“My students are crew leads, they know that they have deadlines they need to meet and communicate with their peers about when they are coming in to do extra time beyond what is basically asked,” Griffin says. “The arts is a way of seeing problems and figuring out how to tackle them.”

This weekend is the Hoover High School fall play, “Cinderella.” Griffin said 50 students auditioned the cast rehearses for three hours after school, four days a week. The set crew builds for eight hours each Saturday.

“Students who do theatre are stronger communicators,” Griffin says. “There’s not a lot in this world that’s strictly right and wrong. That’s a huge part of partaking in the arts, is understanding that about life and that it’s within your power to take it on.”

Cinderella starts at 7 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday at Hoover High School.

Des Moines Public Schools
Thanks to a grant from Prairie Meadows, more than 200 new instruments are helping DMPS students learn music. The instruments went to band and orchestra programs at Hoover, North and East high schools; Meredith, McCombs, Hiatt, Callanan and Weeks middle schools; River Woods, McKinley, Capitol View and Pleasant Hills elementary schools. Photo courtesy of the Des Moines Public Schools.

Everybody has an opportunity

Kelly Kretschmer is the Fine and Performing Arts Curriculum Coordinator for the Des Moines Public Schools and said the district has a diverse group of students—from athletes to students who only participate in the performing arts.

Kretschmer says Des Moines Public Schools offers general music courses to students in elementary school up through fifth grade. Fifth graders get the chance to do a weekly music lesson.

In middle school, students can be in band, choir or orchestra. And because state law requires students to take a visual and performing art, they can take a music appreciation class in seventh and eighth grade if a student elects not to participate in one of those three.

Once a student reaches high school there are multiple opportunities to earn art credits from music production, visual arts, theatre, band and choir. Griffin says other than the two major productions a year, Hoover High School students do short films, a one-act play, musical theatre and individual events.

“All of the arts teaches kids about discipline. The idea that you have to be accountable to others,” Griffin says. “So you are accountable to others, and to the audience. The work you put in is going to be reflected in what you show. If one person doesn’t do that move correctly, that’s where the audience’s eyes go.”

And Kretschmer says partnerships with the Des Moines Performing Arts Group, the Des Moines Symphony and Civic Music expose students at all grade levels to professional artists and musicians.

“Being in Des Moines we have a lot of resources here but our students don’t necessarily have the opportunities to access those,” Kretschmer says. “So my big push is how do I remove those barriers to give students a strong arts education in whatever they are passionate about.”

Des Moines Public Schools
Third-grade drawings at Capitol View Elementary in Des Moines.

Collaboration is welcomed

For teachers, Kretschmer says visual and performing arts teachers meet once a month so they can get to see other people who do what they do, share ideas and see what works and what doesn’t in other buildings.

“So many of our arts educators are the only practitioner in their building,” Kretschmer explains. “So when it comes to collaboration they don’t have anyone to collaborate within their content area.”

Schmitt says it’s difficult being the only art teacher in her building but says meeting with other art teachers has been beneficial.

“It’s great to be able to sit down and see what other people do,” she says.

Schmitt says because art doesn’t have a specific answer, it allows kids to flourish. Her most recent project with the third graders at Capital View was a drawing based on their observations at school.

“Two plus two is always four,” Schmitt says. “But a lot of times in art, these are all the right answers because they are all about school, detailed and even that kid who a lot of people think they don’t have the best motor skills was still successful.”