Program sees enrollment rise again

Swing dancing classes to learn about the Second World War, a video project to learn about the life of William Shakespeare and in-class visits from prominent local artists to learn about new creative concepts. These are some of the experiences offered to students enrolled in high school arts-centered learning courses in the Calgary Board of Education.

Arts-centered learning is an approach to education that allows students to complete creative artistic projects to help them learn the standard high school curriculum. The goals of the arts-centered learning programs in Calgary is to encourage an appreciation and respect of the arts, challenge students to think critically and creatively, and to teach skills that will serve the students well for their whole lives.

There are four schools that house arts-centered learning. Two at the juniorSell, an arts-centered learning student at Lord Beaverbrook High School, shows off a page in her completed journal for one of her ACL courses.

Photo by Quinton Amundson high level- Sir John Franklin School and Willow Park School – and two at the high school level – Lord Beaverbrook High School and James Fowler High School. Last year, the total amount of students taking ACL courses in was 1,376.

Enrolment in ACL is expected to increase this school year.

Amanda Horricks, a Grade 12 arts-centered learning student at James Fowler High School says: ” I love the program. I have always had an interest in the arts and I wanted to push myself.

“This program pushes you to be more creative, and it makes you think more in-depth.”

However, students and teachers interviewed about the program say it’s widely misunderstood.

Maddie Leigh, a Grade 11 ACL student at James Fowler High School, says that people outside the program think students taking this route are merely trying to avoid doing academic work.

However, Allison Wandler, the learning leader in the ACL program at James Fowler High School, says that the ACL program has “more intense rigor” than other programs. She says that the program is deeply analytical as it teaches students how to think, as opposed to what to think.

The program has also proven to be more popular by the year with both high schools reporting ACL enrollment continuing to rise.

“Whenever I walk into one of my ACL classes, I feel like I am among family. I was really shy coming into this program but I have become a completely different person.”

– Amanda Horricks

Origins of ACL

Arts-centered learning has been around as long as 1997. The creative arts program at Milton Williams School became the first arts-centered learning school in Calgary.

The program grew each year, and by 2004, the program had to move to Willow Park School to accommodate the increasing enrolment in grades five to nine.

Then in 2005, the Board of Trustees on the Calgary Board of Education approved the opening of Sir John Franklin School to serve as a northern option for grades five to nine. The program opened its doors in 2006.

In 2007, Lord Beaverbrook High School became the first school to offer ACL courses to grades 10 to 12.

In 2008, James Fowler High School became the fourth school to house an arts-centered learning program.

Colin Haydu, an assistant principal at Lord Beaverbrook High School, says that ACL allows passionate arts students to develop their talents while learning the core courses. He added students have the options of taking one ACL class or more. Students in this program are expected to take the same exams as those in non-ACL classes.

Haydu offers a reason as to why this program emerged as an option. He says: “We have surpassed this way of thinking that was our university graduates had to be math-science and computer-strong.”

“We are now living in an economy,” he says, “where companies are looking for creative out-of-the box thinkers that can bring that kind of approach to problem-solving.”

Haydu also suggests that we become “better people” by learning about Shakespeare, Mozart, and Beethoven because “art is a part of our collective culture.”

A community

Students interviewed offered their own personal opinions on why they enjoyedBall, an arts-centered learning student at Lord Beaverbrook High School, shows off a page in her completed journal for one of her ACL courses.

Photo by Quinton Amundson the program, but all the students said they appreciated the community aspect of ACL.

Amanda Horricks says: ” Whenever I walk into one of my ACL classes, I feel like I am among family. I was really shy coming into this program but I have become a completely different person.”

Maddie Leigh says that at her last school she “was the oddball that liked to be alone,” but at James Fowler High School she is among family.

Ele Davis, the arts director at Lord Beaverbrook High School, says what she loves most about ACL is the energy and the “enthusiasm the students have for each other and for the content.”

During some recent ACL classes, the energy and openness was easily apparent. Students shared personal experience with none of the usual teacher-student formality.

A challenging program

Joanne Papadopolous, an ACL teacher at Lord Beaverbrook High School calls the program “a fine balance between, context, content and art.” She adds though that the balance is what makes it challenging.

Leigh maintains that while some people only use a limited portion of their brain, this program forces you to access the different parts and think in-depth.

Learning leader Wandler says that ACL courses are high on the learning curve with some courses even being more difficult than AP programs.

Anders Alm, a teacher of both ACL and non-ACL courses at Lord Beaverbrook High School, says: “Part of the challenge of teaching ACL is that they have seen a lot of ways to approach the curriculum, so coming up with a fresh way to come to teach the curriculum is important.”

Wandler says, “There is more collaboration and a lot more projects in addition to the regular academic course load.”

Wandler adds that the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills students learn in ACL programs serve them for the rest of their lives.

Devasahayam, an arts-centered learning student at Lord Beaverbrook High School, shows off a page in his completed journal for one of his ACL courses.

Photo by Quinton AmundsonAccording to the Lord Beaverbrook High School arts-centered learning information site, ACL students often record higher marks than students not in the program.

It is fun too according to what every student says.

Leigh recounts how last year to learn the concepts in Romeo and Juliet, she and her classmates created a spoof comedy of the romance play.

Horricks notes that students got to create art for math and science class as well.

Other classrooms featured had students creating artistic posters to learn about globalization, and students made journals to learn different curriculum. And in another class, students shared stories as they had a lively debate about contemporary issues.

qamundson@cjournal.ca