Students who attend arts-rich schools in South Carolina outperformed the national mean in the areas of engagement, hope, entrepreneurial aspiration, and career and financial literacy, according to the 2018 study from the S.C. Arts Commission and Gallup.

The SmartARTS program of the Metropolitan Arts Council integrates arts education into core learning at Greenville County Schools. Trained teaching artists work alongside classroom teachers to create arts-rich schools through the program.

“In addition to students gaining a better understanding of academic areas as well as greater recall and retention of information, the program also helps students to personalize learning and gain greater context through the arts,” says Kimberly Gibbs, MAC director of arts education.

SmartARTS uses creative writing, visual arts, music, dance, and theater to create academic success. Alan Ethridge, MAC executive director, says the program benefits all involved — students, teachers, artists, and even parents.

“It’s had a huge impact on the Greenville County Schools because it captures students who have traditionally been unengaged with high degrees of apathy, dissatisfaction, lack of academic achievement, lack of motivation,” Ethridge says. “But when the artist comes in, all of that changes.”

Introducing the arts

“I had several classes that were almost all boys, and now I wanted them to tap into their inner feelings — middle school boys and feelings,” teacher Leila Moore says. “I was convinced I had lost my mind.”

Teaching reading and special education to sixth- through eighth-graders at League Academy, she needed a way to engage her classes in learning about poetry.

“I chose to have a creative writer come to my class to help introduce the writing concept of poetry,” she says. “I was pretty sure this was not going to be a well-received project with my students.”

But to her surprise, the students fell in love with the loud, vibrant teaching artist. “The students thought he was cool, and that was half the battle,” Moore says. “By the end of the unit, the boys were writing poetry. They were laying their souls open for all to hear.”

Culminating in a poetry slam, the students relayed deep understanding and feeling through spoken art.

“[Arts integration] helps the student understand difficult concepts through exploration, thus retaining the knowledge,” Moore says. “Better yet, they are able to use their newfound knowledge in the real world.”

Devin Moore, who teaches second grade at Summit Drive Elementary, noticed her students struggling to connect with social studies content relating to culture. But once pottery was added to the curriculum, things quickly changed.

“Students carved cultural objects out of clay to create a pottery piece for our class totem pole,” she says. “Students were able to share their piece with the class and tell what connections they had to the objects they chose.”

Devin Moore’s students made personal connections in a tangible way from abstract concepts within the subject area. 

“I believe their learning has deepened as a result of the SmartARTS integration,” she says. “I am very excited about continuing this unit in the future.”

Seeing the impact

During the 2018-19 school year, SmartARTS channeled $192,155 directly into schools in the form of resident teaching artists and art supplies that touched 6,905 K4-12 students. To date, SmartARTS has provided training for over 600 teachers and 200 area professional artists. Over 10,000 people will be served in the 2019-20 school year.

SmartARTS timeline

-SmartARTS began in 2002 through three federal education grants.

-The three grants expired in 2007.

-Since 2007, MAC has continually raised funds from local philanthropic and business communities.

-In 2016, TD Bank pledged $200,000 over five years.

-In 2018, the Graham Foundation contributed $220,000.

-As of 2019, MAC has raised $3.2 million from community donors, and 73 Greenville County Schools have benefited.

What is SmartARTS? The program seeks to improve academic achievement through arts-rich experiences, connecting students and teachers to deeper learning and self-awareness.

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