Kal Penn Advocates for DMPS, Arts Education

Actor/activist Kal Penn and the school district's visual arts curriculum coordinator Sarah Dougherty speak to the Iowa Senate Education Committee.

Actor/activist Kal Penn and the school district’s visual arts curriculum coordinator Sarah Dougherty speak to the Iowa Senate Education Committee.

Wednesday was Fine Arts Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill in Des Moines. And DMPS sent some fine advocates indeed to share some of the abundant good news from the district’s Turnaround Arts cohort of schools with the Education Committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives of the Iowa General Assembly.

The district’s Visual Arts Curriculum Coordinator and TA Program Coordinator Sarah Dougherty and Kal Penn, special envoy on loan from the President’s Council on the Arts & Humanities (PCAH), gave legislators the lowdown on the impact of arts integrated curricula including increased attendance, reduced office referrals, skyrocketing parental engagement and, most importantly, higher levels of student achievement in core academic areas like math and reading.

Dougherty was making a repeat visit to the statehouse and during her testimony she recalled that every legislator she spoke with a year ago shared a fond personal memory of a fine arts experience from their own school days.

“We need to insure that every student who grows up in Iowa schools will have the same types of opportunities,” she said.

Penn, who will be back at Harding Middle School again on Thursday working directly with students there, was asked by Senator Robert Hogg to expand on his remarks about how infusing the arts into other areas of instruction enhances learning.

“I wasn’t necessarily the best student in a traditional classroom setting growing up (in New Jersey),” he said. “I learned more about biology by playing a doctor in a TV show than I ever did in science class. I understand why when a kid’s eyes light up for a history lesson when you start out by saying, ‘Okay, everybody on their feet.’ Sometimes it’s more fun and effective to act out a lesson than read about it. At Harding, for instance, we might turn the properties of atomic particles into a dance.”

Dougherty gave examples of strategies that led to raising the attendance rate for parent/teacher conferences from 82% to 98% at Findley Elementary, the first of five DMPS cohort schools to participate in the federal TA program.

“Instead of notifying parents about informational meetings we invited them to arts events,” she said. “Arts are an easy sell. Everybody relates to them in some way. That’s how we get them to school the first time and then school becomes a ‘can’t miss’ deal for both students and their families.”

Before the Senate Education Committee adjourned, Senator Rita Hart inquired about the possibility of committee members getting an invitation for a legislative field trip to the district’s TA schools (Cattell, Madison and Oak Park in addition to Findley and Harding) to see for themselves. Expect Dougherty, in a spirit of reciprocity, to oblige. She won’t simply be doing the polite thing. She knows that seeing is believing. Next thing you know state legislators might be showing up for parent/teacher conferences on the Northside.

And on the subjects of showing up and legislation and advocacy for schools, this might be a good time to remind everyone about the first meeting of the Legislative Education and Advocacy Committee for Des Moines Public Schools at 3:30 PM Sunday, January 31st at Central Campus. The focus of the committee is to engage the community in support of the school district through coalition-building, communications, and advocacy for state policies that will help our students succeed. The meeting is open to parents and residents in the DMPS community.

Photos of Arts Alliance Day at the State Capitol

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