Budget cuts taking toll on arts in school

Most of the 4-year-old students at Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts Elementary School in 2013 were enrolled in the Begin with Books program. They received a free book in the mail every month.

The Charleston County School District has removed its fine arts coordinator and redefined the job description to include oversight of world languages curriculum. The change is part of a larger overhaul that has some educators worried about the future of arts programming in the public schools.

The changes come in the wake of a budget shortfall of $18 million that’s prompted officials to adjust staff allocations at schools across the district, according to Erica Taylor, the district’s strategy and communications director. Of the three local school districts, Charleston County is the only one without a dedicated fine arts coordinator.

These adjustments aren’t confined to arts education, though cuts have rattled arts teachers and nonprofit arts organizations that work closely with area public schools.

One hard-hit school is Sanders-Clyde Elementary and Middle School in Charleston’s East Side neighborhood. Sanders-Clyde lost its arts magnet status because of low enrollment, according to school officials. As a result, funding and staffing were reduced. Drama and dance were eliminated along with two teachers. At least two other teachers saw their hours at the school trimmed.

Melany Warfuel, a visual art teacher, now will split her time between Sanders-Clyde and Chicora Elementary. She noted that the cuts were a direct consequence of the school’s change of status, but that Sanders-Clyde was not immune to the district’s resource reallocation process.

Warfuel said the district’s point system used for allocating resources and staff once included some elbow room, but no longer. The impact on students is likely to be significant, she said.

“(Arts-infused education) is very beneficial,” Warfuel said. “It makes learning more fun. It reinforces lessons. It’s especially important for low-income kids. It makes me sad that they’re not going to be able to get as much.”

Charles Atkins III, the drama teacher let go from Sanders-Clyde, has taken a job at Philip Simmons Elementary School in Berkeley County. He expressed concern over diminishing support of arts education.

“Marginalizing arts education and (the work we do) at our most vulnerable schools is utterly shortsighted, embraces a fixed mind set, decreases meaningful learning opportunities and only perpetuates the academic and social cycle of despair,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of The Post and Courier.

Sanders-Clyde reopened with some fanfare in a new $25.7 million building, with specialized curriculum, in February 2010. Local artist Jonathan Green was an early advocate for the arts-infused approach. His tile mural decorates the entrance.

The school has benefited from key collaborations — with Green, the Backpack Journalist program, Redux Contemporary Arts Center, Engaging Creative Minds, Charleston Promise Neighborhood and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra — and enrollment increased from 500 in 2012 to 600 in 2014.

But this year enrollment was down 20 percent, to about 460, in part because some students now are attending the recently opened Simmons-Pinckney Middle School. Sanders-Clyde now is set to shed its middle grades.

The change at the school is part of a larger effort to find savings by adhering more closely to formal allocation formulas, Taylor said. Because of a little flexibility built into the system, as well as some creative manipulation, certain schools in the district had more staff than allocation formulas called for, she said.

The budget crunch is serving as impetus for an across-the-board assessment and overhaul, Taylor said. Administrators had proposed to cut nine full-time arts positions for the 2016-17 school year, but the precise scope of changes and cuts remains unclear. The district has not responded to multiple queries over two weeks from The Post and Courier.

Local arts organizations also are worried.

“We want more arts programming in schools,” said Janice Crews, education director for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. “The CSO’s work is supplemental; we can only do so much to bring the arts to these kids. Without regular access, kids will suffer.”

Sterling deVries, education director at the Gaillard Center and a former Charleston school district arts teacher, said she’s not concerned about the commitment of classroom teachers to arts education. They “get it,” she said. They understand the benefits of teaching the arts, and of infusing the arts into regular academic subjects. But the loss of Fine Arts Coordinator James Braunreuther is troubling, she said.

“It feels like we have to start over,” deVries said.

Braunreuther, who has taken a job as an arts teacher at Mount Pleasant Academy, said much was accomplished during his 13 years as fine arts coordinator.

“I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done,” he said.

He helped start the nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds, which trains math, science, English and social studies teachers to harness the arts and which organizes summer programs for students. He cofounded the Charleston Marathon, which raises $100,000 a year for arts education in the public schools. He developed new curriculums and special projects, such as “Composition and Critique,” in an effort to foster interdisciplinary learning.

Braunreuther also played a role in securing grant money, ensuring that new school buildings are designed to support arts activities and fostering special partnerships like the one with Hootie and the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan and his Carolina Studios.

He secured hundreds of new band instruments, as well as pianos and choir risers. And he set up a coalition that includes Engaging Creative Minds, the Charleston Symphony, the Gaillard Center and the school district, which participates in the Kennedy Center’s “Partners in Education” teacher-training program.

Braunreuther was procuring new kilns for art classrooms and more instruments for young musicians when he lost his job.

“If there isn’t somebody passionate about the arts in that position, I’m concerned about the future of the arts in schools,” he said.

Barry Goldsmith, who was the district’s fine arts coordinator for 14 years before Braunreuther, said arts education has grown over the decades, especially since Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School was established in 1984, quickly becoming a model.

Recently, the district attempted to replicate that model, opening North Charleston Creative Arts School in 2011.

“The county has started other arts-infused schools, but didn’t support them properly,” Goldsmith said.

Jennie Moore Elementary School for the Creative Arts is a partial magnet in Mount Pleasant that strives to enhance its regular curriculum with limited arts programming. C.E. Williams Middle School for Creative and Scientific Arts is a partial magnet on the edge of West Ashley. And Ellington Creative Arts Elementary School is a partial magnet in Ravenel.

The school district’s goal is to maintain an arts magnet school in each of its five geographical zones, though two of those zones do not yet have one.

Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.