Thursday, March 30, 2000
School gets national arts award
Rockledge Elementary among eight schools honored by cable network
by Delina D. Pryce
Staff Writer

Jazz artist Imani directs Rockledge Elementary students in the school gymnasium. Performing are (from left to right) Alicia Osborn, third grade; Lauren Craig, third; Emily Kay, fourth; Shayna Blass, fourth; Tamar Taylor, fourth; and Anthony Bilotta, third.

John Ceschini has been principal at Rocklege Elementary School in Bowie for only two weeks when parents approached him about incorporating arts into the curriculum. Seven years later, this infusion of arts has brought national recognition to Ceschini and the school from a national cable television network.

Bravo, the “film and arts network,” will present its 2000 National Arts Education Award to Ceschini today at a ceremony at the school.

The staff at Rockledge secretly nominated Ceschini for the award. He is one of eight people nationwide who won recognition for their commitment to the arts as well as a $2,500 personal gift. Ceschini said he will donate some of it to the arts program that he said is always at risk of losing financial support.

“You never know when they (school system officials) are going to cut funding,”Ceschni said. “I don’t understand, in one of the best economies in our history, why anything would be cut in education.”

Because of this, Ceschini finds that he is constantly having to defend the school’s emphasis on the arts. The principal has inundated himself in research to widen his knowledge base on the subject, “I constantly have to justify this program,” he said.

“I’m convinced that this is the way to go,” Ceschini said, citing the rising test scores the school has enjoyed since the program began. “When we started, our test scores went up 20 points,” Ceschini said. Those scores have since leveled out at a “pretty high” point. “Beyond the test scores, you’re educating the whole child,” he said. The inclusion of arts “enhances learning across the curriculum” and helps students learn life skills and gain self-esteem, Ceschini said.

Imani, acclaimed jazz vocalist and resident artist at Rockledge, believes “the arts make the child have confidence.” The standard way of approaching reading, writing and arithmetic calls for students to have an outward experience. “Art always brings them in,” she said.

“You have to create something,” Ceschini said of requiring students to participate in the arts. “It’s hands on. It’s authentic learning.”

“Ballet helps me concentrate more on school and helps me get better grades,” said Shayna Blass, a fourth-grader who participates in jazz and ballet at the school and also attends dance classes in Crofton. Blass said she had tried to get her friends involved in the performance art. “Dancing kind of helps you express your feelings,” she said.

Sixth-grader Magan Johns said that when her teacher incorporates music and math, “it makes it fun.” “You get it a lot more too, because you remember how fun it was,” she said. Ceschini agreed, saying it “brings more relevancy to students. It’s exciting for them.”

“Children need a variety of ways to learn,” said Shari Blohm, the school library media specialist. The arts program, she said, helps to “broaden their horizons in ways they’re not going to know until they get older.” “I think every school in the United States should have this program,” Ceschini said. He said he has been “all over the world,” including the Netherlands and western Sahara, to show others the benefits.

The community’s support has played a key role in the success of the program, according to Ceschini. He reciprocates that support by welcoming the parents’ involvement.

“He’s just so supportive,” said Denise Hollige who has a third- and fifth-grader at the school. Hollige’s idea to play music in the school hallways in the morning has been implemented.

Every classroom at Rockledge visited the American Art Museum to coincide with this year’s theme, the American arts. Resident visual and performing artists spend weeks visiting classrooms, teaching students about their talents and skills.

The relationships the school has with the Maryland Arts Council, the Prince George’s Arts Council and the Kennedy Center make the resident artists’ visits possible. “I feel it’s my duty to share a part of me,” said Imani. The artist visited the school twice a week for four months.

Imani believes that the arts should never be separated from a core curriculum. In music alone there is math, social studies, languages and other subjects, she said. “It just goes hand in hand,” she said. The school staff learns from the resident artists as well. “There’s not a single artist that’s come that I didn’t pick up something I didn’t already know about that particular art form,” Blohm said.

The Rockledge Arts Infusion Program was part of a Harvard University study about how arts survive. The book will be published in May.