Eleven fifth-grade girls sit on the floor of their classroom, singing quietly as they strum brightly-colored ukuleles.
The girls are in an advanced ukulele class at McEver Arts Academy in Hall County, part of the school’s Create Classes program.
The arts are an integral part of students’ education at McEver, but not all schools in the state have the same emphasis.
A study of access to art education in Georgia was recently published by Georgia Council for the Arts. It used feedback from public school principals in the state to determine the availability of arts in the classroom.
The report found Georgia schools offer less access to the arts than the national average, though the state has above-average access to arts courses for the Southeast region.
“The intent of this report is to be useful and impactful to those engaged in arts education,” it states. “We ask readers to share it and put it to work ... to improve access to quality arts education in Georgia.”
The council report breaks down arts access by zip code. The Gainesville-Hall County area had average or high access to visual arts and music courses. Theater, dance and creative writing courses had considerably lower access in the area.
Hall County has 15,608 students enrolled in fine arts courses, according to Tracy Bishop, data analyst specialist for the school system. The district has approximately 27,000 students.
Hall County offers a total of 42 different arts courses across all grade levels.
At the high school level, this includes two Advanced Placement studio art courses, four possible International Baccalaureate programs in theater arts and visual arts and additional courses in visual arts, culinary arts and dramatic arts.
Gainesville City Schools could not provide data regarding the number of students in arts courses, but elementary and middle school students also have access to the arts, as in Hall County. Gainesville students can then choose further art courses as electives in high school.
“They need the expressive outlet,” said Clay Sayre, art teacher at Gainesville High School. “They need a class that allows them to answer questions subjectively rather than objectively, and that teaches there isn’t always a right and wrong answer; there are many possible options to answer a question.”
Paula Stubbs, principal of DaVinci Academy, said arts courses in Hall middle schools are called “connections.”
“It’s important, particularly in middle schools, to have a balance between arts and academics,” Stubbs said. “That’s why they are called ‘connections’ in the middle school, and then they can declare (a high-school level course) in the eighth grade.’”
Sally Krisel, Hall director of innovative programs, said all Hall elementary school students do have access to at least one fine arts class. But some schools, like McEver, offer more than others.
McEver’s Create Classes are designed to integrate art into the core classrooms. Math, science and English teachers teach two periods of Create Classes every Friday, based on the teacher’s passion or skill.
Create classes include pottery, recorder, keyboard, guitar, chorus, movie making, cooking, rhythm and dance, painting, hip-hop dance and more.
“A lot of these kids find this is where they shine,” said Laura Gale, music teacher at McEver. “And it gives them that confidence that maybe they don’t have in other classes.”
Fifth-grader Ingrid Bautista said she and most of her classmates have ukuleles at home and started learning to play them at McEver last year.
“The chords are a lot easier than the guitar,” she said. “We started learning last year and now we like learning whole songs together.”
Her classmate Valeria Barrera said playing the ukulele “is calming” in the middle of a sometimes busy school day.
Sayre said the arts help students to become “creative problem-solvers.”
“That ultimately is more important,” he said. “If these kids are going to make a decision to go into art professionally, it’s only going to be after they connect with the ability to think creatively. And to move forward with any career, they will need that.”
Stubbs agreed, saying it’s important for schools to educate the whole child.
“I mean honestly, for some it gives them their identity,” she said. “It gives them a way to participate and to find their gift.”