Fine-arts requirements for Texas students expanding in coming school year

Reading, writing and ... mariachi?

When classes begin next month, students statewide will be required to take at least one fine arts course in the sixth, seventh or eighth grade. The rules also expand high school requirements so that all students in grades nine through 12 must earn at least one fine arts credit in courses such as band, theater, choir, dance or mariachi.

Many North Texas school administrators expect minimal changes in the coming school year, noting that most middle school-age students already take fine arts classes. But educators and parents are pleased nonetheless, saying more young people will be able to explore interests and identify artistic talents, eventually boosting enrollment in high school arts programs.

Jeannie Burleson said her son Jared will take choir class when he enters sixth grade at Birdville's Smithfield Middle School next year after singing in an extracurricular choir in elementary school.

"I think it is great for all of our kids to be exposed to a lot of different things," said Burleson, of North Richland Hills. "You don't know if you'll like it until you try it."

Statewide, middle school arts enrollment has declined in recent years because required courses crowd student schedules. And some students miss out on electives to prepare for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, said Robert Floyd, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Music Educators Association.

"Arts are an important component of a well-balanced education," Floyd said. "I think it was a very positive move by the Legislature in spite of these days of high-stakes testing."

No major changes

In the Fort Worth district, about 80 percent of middle schoolers are enrolled in fine arts classes, officials said. Officials are working to accommodate the rest in the classes that interest them, said Michael Ryan, executive director of fine arts.

Most Arlington school district students already fulfill the state requirement because sixth-graders attend elementary schools before advancing to junior high, said spokeswoman Amy Casas.

"The change did not have much of an impact in our school district that we weren't already doing," Casas said.

Other districts, including Birdville, Keller and Northwest, also require sixth-graders to take a fine arts course.

Northwest's high school arts class enrollment has increased since the middle school requirement was implemented in 2007. And 75 percent of students in an arts class take one again the subsequent year, said Kevin Lacefield, fine arts director.

In Keller, fifth-graders rotate among electives every 12 weeks to help students identify their interests.

In Birdville, sixth-graders can sign up for a combination arts class, with one semester of art and another in theater, so they can see what they like.

Educators say early and repeated exposure can allow high school instructors to identify and recruit talented students.

'A strong start'

Having students interested in fine arts in middle school is paying off for some Tarrant County school districts.

In November, L.D. Bell High's Blue Raider marching band placed second in the Bands of America Grand National Championship in Indianapolis, having won in 2007.

Birdville High School's production of The Boyfriend won Best Musical in the 2009 Betty Lynn Buckley Awards. In May, the school tied for first place in 2010 for Bye Bye Birdie with North Crowley's Little Women.

The Arlington, Denton, Hurst-Euless-Bedford and Northwest school district were recognized nationally in May as among 30 "best communities for music education" by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation.

And in Keller, where 71 percent of middle schoolers and 70 percent of high schoolers are enrolled fine arts courses, early exposure has been key in building theater programs, said David Stevens, fine arts director.

This past school year, Keller High won the 5A title in the state UIL One Act Play competitions, while Central High was one of eight state finalists. It was the second consecutive appearance at the state meet for Central, which finished second last year.

Timber Creek High, in its first year of competition, advanced to 3A regional competition.

"I'm convinced that why we're so successful in theater and arts is because we still offer art and music to every elementary school and add drama to it in fifth and sixth grade. At a lot of school districts, a kid doesn't get to select drama until high school," Stevens said.

"People were amazed that Timber Creek made it to region, but they've had instruction since fifth grade," Stevens said. "It gives them a strong start."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326