Arts to be added to all classroom lessons

Last modified: Monday, September 08, 2014
AMHERST — Art, music and physical education instructors will collaborate with classroom teachers on lessons this school year as the Amherst elementary schools formally integrate arts into the curriculum.

Hours for the teachers of the specialty subjects, usually the first to go on the chopping block during lean budget years, have been increased to allow them to play a larger role in all lessons.

“It’s an effort to look at the whole child,” said Michael Morris, assistant superintendent of schools who is leading the effort. “As much as we are interested in student achievement, we are also interested in students having a diverse array of experiences in elementary school.”

Amherst schools open Aug. 28, after the annual back-to-school celebration on the Town Common Aug. 27 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. If it rains, the party will be held in the high school cafeteria. The free event includes dance and music performances, disc golf, crafts and free pizza — along with a few speeches by officials.

Among the new faces that will be seen in the halls this year are two new principals — Marisa Mendonsa at Amherst Regional Middle School and Bobbie Finocchio at Fort River School — and Carol Ross, the media and climate communications specialist, who was hired by the schools and the town to work on improving race relations in the community. Her office is in the middle school.

Also in a new job is Monica Hall, former Fort River principal who is now serving as director of diversity and equity. Her focus will on civil rights complaints, curriculum issues and services for low-income children.

Former guidance counselors Maureen Fleming and Talib Sadiq will take on new positions as climate control coordinators, replacing two of three deans who helped oversee discipline at the high school and middle schools. Mary Custard will continue as dean of students at Amherst Regional High School, but Fleming, at the high school, and Sadiq, at the middle school, will focus more on causes of disruptive behavior and educational responses rather than punishment. That goes along with a revamping of the behavior code that veers away from suspensions and detentions as forms of discipline to “tiers of intervention,” according to Faye Brady, director of student services.

Arts infusion

The change to an “arts-infused”curriculum in the elementary schools this year provides set times for classroom teachers and the so-called “specials” teachers to meet and coordinate instruction. Morris said a group of teachers is spending time before school opens preparing for the new approach.

Where some teachers already work with arts teachers to enrich their units, Morris said the formal collaboration will give “specials” teachers a prominent role in everyday instruction. For example, an art instructor might take over a reading class to teach how a book’s illustrations advance the story, said Morris. Or a music instructor might teach songs about immigration to be worked into a unit on that topic, he said. Those teachers will not simply be offering an “arts experience” for the students, he said, but providing an integral part of the lesson.

There will also be a 40-minute block each week for fifth- and sixth-graders to be immersed in the arts. They will be exposed to art, music, theater and physical education in a concentrated way intended to pique curiosity in courses they may study in middle or high school.

“We have a wonderful electives program so we want to prepare students for that, not in terms of skills, necessarily, but to give them experiences so they can find what their interests and passions are,” said Morris.

The block will be broken down into small groups so that all of the students during the year will experience them all.

Superintendent Maria Geryk pointed out that while some students get exposure to arts instruction outside of school beginning at an early age, others do not. “We all want to try new things,” she said.

New principals

Marisa Mendonsa, formerly principal of the John J. Duggan Middle School in Springfield, and Bobbie Finocchio, formerly head of the Arthur T. Cummings Elementary School in Winthrop, began work in Amherst on July 1.

Mendonsa, taking over for Betsy Dinger who stepped down to return to teaching, paused between summertime preparation meetings earlier this month to talk about her new job.

“It’s awesome,” said Mendosa, who once taught social studies at the middle school. “The biggest challenge is preparing for a school you haven’t seen in action for quite some time.” She said other administrators, staff and teachers have been giving her the lowdown. “It’s just been really positive so far. I’m super excited. I can’t wait for the kids to get back.”

Her goal at the moment, is one she has every year, she said. “That I can continue moving this building forward as a great place for students to get smarter, to become lifelong learners and be really compassionate human beings.”

She said she intends to work hard at developing the community of teachers, staff and families to make that happen. “When you can have everybody as a partner in that, it makes the work easier and really more rewarding.”

Finocchio, who has also been submerged in meetings this summer, is getting to know the faculty and staff, a group, she said, that has seen a lot of turnover in the school’s leadership in the past decade. She is the school’s third principal since 2008. She replaces Monica Hall who took over for Ray Sharick in 2011.

“I need to get a deep understanding of the culture here at Fort River, and develop trust with the faculty,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere for awhile. I know that, but I’m not sure the faculty does, so I need to build relationships.”

Finocchio said she is primarily looking forward to getting to know Fort River families and the students. “My goal is to meet and talk with an many people as possible.”

Meanwhile, Morris has been instrumental in bringing her up to speed on Amherst’s ways, she said. “It’s different from what I’m used to.”

Mainly, she said, she is impressed with the kinds of supports available. “I’m thinking about the Family Center, the after-school program. We have interventionists, curriculum coaches, curriculum coordinators. All of those are resources I’m not accustomed to having. I’m very excited about it.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@Gazettenet.com.