This year, an exciting thing is happening in Louisiana, which many anticipate will change the future of education in our country. The George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts is partnering with Louisiana A+ Schools to bring creativity into the lives of young students, a change that is expected to yield innumerable positive results.
This past June, over 250 teachers from our state attended a five-day intensive training program aimed to familiarize the teachers with arts-integration and A+ methods. The result was phenomenal. One Kindergarten teacher commented, “I wish I had known all of this when I started teaching 25 years ago!” while another said, “[The A+ model] is not just another thing I have to incorporate in my class, but rather an important part of a puzzle that was missing.” The principal of one school discovered that “art education is an excellent mechanism for helping students move past their perceived limitations to explore new possibilities.”
So what exactly is the A+ model? I asked Jacques Rodrigue, Executive Director of GRFA, and Bethany France, Director of Louisiana A+, to find out.
The A+ school system began in the mid 1990s in North Carolina. Designed to foster creativity in the students, the curriculum focused on using art and music within the context of the classroom to stimulate the minds of the children. But that’s not all they were concerned with. “What’s so unique about the A+ framework is that it’s not just about the arts; we’re actually looking to really impact the whole structure of the school through the Eight Essentials,” said France.
The Eight Essentials are a central aspect of the system and make up the foundation for the A+ model. Interestingly, they began as a brainstorming activity among the teachers in North Carolina. Prompted by the question, “What kind of school would you want your personal children to go to?” the teachers named hundreds of things. They then narrowed them down to eight fundamental characteristics of a desirable school system: arts, curriculum, experiential learning, collaboration, climate, infrastructure, assessment, and multiple learning pathways.
One of the goals of the LAA+ Summer Institute was for the teachers to learn how to craft lessons that can apply to as many different learning styles as possible. That’s where the training really starts. “You’re not engaging the students, especially those at a young age, by standing in front of them and giving a lecture,” explained France. “You want to find a way to teach students in the way that they want to be taught.”
Likewise, each A+ School needs a different curriculum and design that fits with their system. “What we strive to do is fully understand the school’s environment before we even start working with them,” said Rodrigue. “You have to figure out what A+ means to them and how they operate under the Eight Essentials.” That’s why, at the LAA+ Summer Institute, they planned out Day 1 but didn’t plan Day 2 until after they’d finished the first day (and so on for the rest of the week). The resulting enthusiasm was contagious. “The transformation of the faculty and their relationship with one another—and the way they were talking about their school—was so different in just those five days,” recalled France.
Art is something that has always been central to the Rodrigue family. George Rodrigue, Jacques’ father, founded the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts as a way to fund aspiring students who want to begin careers as artists. GRFA has given out $200,000 in scholarships to the winners of their art contests and provides art supplies for schools in need as well. They also keep a set of prints not sold in any gallery and sell them to nonprofits for around $500, which the nonprofits sell at auctions for $2000-$3000.
A few years after its start-up, the organization decided to set its sights on supporting arts and education in a big way. They began looking at models of schools with arts integration programs to replicate, and their research led to their eventual partnership with the A+ schools program. Since then, they’ve been working on developing a strategy for implementing A+ Schools in Louisiana, and this year is their first year putting it into action in this state.
When will we know how the schools turn out? Research typically begins at workshops like the LAA+ Summer Institute, and data is continuously collected over the course of three years at each school. According to findings from A+ Schools in Oklahoma and Arkansas, students who attend A+ Schools have generally been found to demonstrate fewer discipline problems, higher academic achievement, better attendance records (for teachers too), stronger parental and community involvement, and a more enjoyable school climate.
“The great thing about an A+ School is that as soon as you walk in, you feel the energy,” France said. “You hear singing in the hallways; you see children dancing; you look in a classroom and students are not sitting in a traditional setting, but are in groups collaborating to create a collage or painting… the climate of an A+ school is just different.”
Rodrigue and France plan to add five to ten new schools to LAA+ each year. There are two currently located in the city of New Orleans, one of which is brand new and just officially opened as of last week: the Homer Plessy Community School. It is the first school in the country to ever start off as an A+ School, and the principal hired the faculty based on their commitment to the A+ Eight Essentials, so the data to be collected on that school will be telling.
The general consensus is that there is a lot of promise for Louisiana A+ Schools. “In Louisiana, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, our culture, and our arts,” said Rodrigue. “If we have our schools represent that, we can be a true model for the rest of the country, and even the world.”