Fanning the Flame of Creativity

During a routine patrol of the boys' restroom I detected the distinct odor of pot. I heard from one of my teachers that Andre had just been there. I summoned Andre to my office, and he was clearly high. He sat in front of me slumped in the chair with a sheepish and sullen grin. He was impervious to counsel and kind words. As the principal of a local continuation high school, I was in charge of discipline, so now it was time to get creative. I've found that creative outlets get better results with 'at risk' students than traditional punishments. The next day I enrolled him in our weekly yoga class. That was followed by elective classes in spoken word.

Continuation schools typically provide extra time and intensified instruction to make up the deficiencies that have developed over a school career of eight to ten years. The idea is that more of the same will fix them. The high school drop-out rate in the LA Unified School District and most urban school districts approaches 50%. Rather than addressing the core issue, the system insists that all students take an academic track of classes for admission to the University of California. Since many are far behind by the time they reach high school, middle school has become the focus of more academic catch-up (double math and English periods, after-school tutoring, summer school). About 40% of ninth grade students do not earn enough credits to advance in high school. At that point many become chronic truants, transfer to continuation and eventually simply disappear.

It is not hard to imagine where these so-called failures end up. We have the highest incarceration rate and teen pregnancy rate in the developed world. Many eventually find themselves and develop into productive citizens. I have met former students who are now in their 30s and 40s who regret the lost opportunity of high school.

These are not hopeless and bad kids. The entrenched and antiquated educational system needs a new approach to this glaring failure. We are failing, not the kids. In over 27 years as a teacher, dean and administrator I saw many students who failed academically but blossomed when offered experiences in the arts. When I was principal of the continuation high school, I introduced a variety of creative classes that inspired otherwise resistant students. A longstanding arts in the schools program run by California Institute of the Arts incites the creative spirit in hundreds of continuation students every year. It is one of several that recognize the need to encourage art in the schools.

What is not commonly recognized is the special need for creative expression in the at-risk student. He or she has lost confidence in doing anything well in school. Personal expression can jump-start a "failing" student by building confidence through expressing their experience. Spoken word artist Adwin David Brown conducts continuation school classes in poetry and creative writing. I've watched as a class of bored and reluctant boys come alive with a pen and paper and a drum beat, thanks to Brown's infectious ability to open up these closed down kids.

The drop-out epidemic demands a new solution and a systemic campaign to provide artistic outlets for students who are academically challenged. Classes in music, drama, art, and dance should not be relegated to electives at the end of high school, but integrated into the core curriculum. Creativity is valued by American industry but not the education establishment. Developing and encouraging artistic talent could be more than a finger in the dike of drop-outs, it could also be a legitimate scholastic path in high school. Ultimately, this transformation calls for an overhaul of our graduation requirements but in the interim more part-time arts instructors are needed at every level but especially high school.

Andre, the busted student, turned out to have a natural talent for performance and played Abraham Lincoln in a district-wide play. The creative experience helped Andre escape from delinquency, drugs and failing grades. Through creativity he had found his voice and his passion and could let go of the fear and self-loathing. He renewed his academic promise and is currently succeeding in college.

The drop-out crisis must be addressed with new solutions, not more of the same-old. Let's look at it honestly and provide real opportunities to encourage confidence, expression and success in our youth. Let's fan the creative fires of expression.