Ridgefield parents call for more art instruction in schools: 'We should be thinking bigger'

Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva at Ridgefield High School on January 20, 2023.

Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva at Ridgefield High School on January 20, 2023.

Arnold Gold/Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — For Ridgefield parent Carrie Ertl, it's frustrating that a town that "prides itself" for its arts and culture and is home to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is shortchanging public school students on arts instruction. 

"The school system has been downsizing the arts in our curriculum at all grade levels. Why are we so intent on filling our students with testable skills?" said Ertl, whose daughter is a 2022 graduate of Ridgefield High School.

"Out of all of the electives this semester, why can't we find room to give busy students the opportunity to express themselves, escape to a quiet place?" she said. 

Ertl was one of about 10 people who spoke during the public comment portion of the Board of Education's Jan. 23 meeting in response to the superinteneent's proposed 2023-24 budget. Their concerns focused on what the speakers called "underperforming" arts instruction — especially at the elementary school level. 

But Superintendent Susie Da Silva defended the district's art program and said it does a good job of enriching students. 

"While it may look, budget to budget, that there is some shift in the high school based on student choices, though, actual budget numbers are the same as budgeted for next year. There are no reductions in art this coming year," Da Silva said.

"Last year, some families may remember we actually added an art teacher, and we have done a significant amount of work around curriculum development in the art program," she said. 

More art teachers? 

In the 2020-21 school year, the district cut the number of art teachers from six to three for its six elementary schools. But it added one position back in the 2021-22 school year.

This school year, each elementary school student gets visual art instruction for 45 minutes on a six-day cycle from those four full-time teachers. 

But parents and others said they would like one full-time art teacher in each elementary school, pointing out that there is a full-time music teacher at each school. However, the music teachers —  in addition to teaching classes — teach individual and/or group lessons on musical instruments, and also teach chorus.

It would cost $200,000 to $220,000 to add two full-time art teachers, with a salary of $80,000 and benefits costing $20,000 to $30,000 for each, Da Silva said. But the district doesn't plan to add any art teachers in the next school year, she said.

"Collectively, with the principals, with the directors, we looked at our model and this is what would make sense right now," Da Silva said. 

Even when the district had six full-time art teachers, not every elementary student received more art instruction, she said.

"That was because some elementary schools have more students than others," she said. The number of hours of art instruction "depended upon the school. It depended upon how much time that teacher had because, naturally, a school with 380 students is going to get less art than a school of 250." 

The district now has a common schedule, Da Silva said, and "everybody gets the same thing. What they are getting now is consistency."

Visual arts recommendations

Under guidelines from the National Art Education Association's "Purposes, Principles and Standards for School Art Programs," all elementary students should receive a minimum of one 50-minute art class per week.

Ridgefield falls short of that, offering only one 45-minute class in visual arts on a six-day cycle for elementary students.

"We should be thinking bigger than this, and we should be innovators in our district, in our world," Ridgefield parent Dawn-Marie Callahan said at the meeting. "We are not meeting (the  minimum recommendations). ... That is not what we are doing."

However, there are no state or national art requirements for public schools on arts instruction. 

Additionally, in a recent Tiger Talk podcast produced by Ridgefield school district, executive director Rick Sadlon, of the Connecticut Arts Administrators Association, said instruction in the arts goes beyond what takes place in art classes.

"It integrates itself into every subject," he said. "There's an untapped area that we all need to look at in our whole state and maybe in the country, which is more interdisciplinary work between different content areas ... and how the arts support other areas as well."

Comparing to neighboring districts

At the recent school board meeting and on social media, parents have been saying Ridgefield offers less art instruction than other districts in its District Reference Group, a state classification that groups districts with similar socio-economic status and needs. Other districts in Ridgefield's DRG are Weston, Westport, Redding, Wilton, Darien, Easton and New Canaan.

Although the state Department of Education says that "grouping like districts together is useful in order to make legitimate comparisons among districts," Da Silva said said there are too many factors to consider when comparing art instruction. 

"Depending upon where you are in your continuum of curriculum development, or priorities or even budget for that matter, impacts what you might have in a school district. You don't know what it is that they do have or what they integrate or what they don't," she said. "So you can't compare it until you know the depth of each of their curriculums." 

Sadlon also advised parents not to compare districts when it comes to art classes.

"Different DRGs have different resources available for them," he said.

Art initiatives  

The Ridgefield school district is planning many ways in which students can explore art, both inside and outside the classroom, Da Silva said. This will include art destinations and possibly adding an artist and illustrator in residence.

"(We are) thinking out of the box, as many school districts do, when they look collectively at the art program," she said. "It's also looking into opportunities that are forward thinking in what kids might be looking toward as they go through their school, their school journey, and not just that one moment in time in their classroom."

Fourth- and fifth-grade students can also access more instruction through Art LEAP during their recess, she said. Art LEAP is an enrichment program run by the district's elementary school art teachers.

Offering Art LEAP was important to the district's goal of providing equitable programs at each of its six elementary schools, Linda Johnson, director of elementary education, said on the podcast.

"This is the first time this experience has been extended to our fourth-graders and is no longer by invitation," Johnson said. "This is a choice offered to all students during non-instructional time and is inclusive for all.”

The district is also working with the Ridgefield Arts Council to get artists "to come in and work with the kids and talk to them about arts careers," Michael McNamara, chair of the district's grade 6-12 visual and performing arts department, said on the podcast.

Instruction in the arts has changed vastly over the years, Da Silva said.

"Arts are not just like, 'Come in and get your crayons out' anymore. There's digital, there's illustration. There's animation within technology classes and within social studies and in science. There's history. ... We just want to be sure our kids are getting a full experience," she said.

"When we create a budget ... we're looking at a student's experience throughout an entire day and their journey, K to 12," Da Silva said. "Anytime we add things to the budget, it's because it makes sense and there's a place for it."

On Feb. 13, the Board of Education will vote on the superintendent's proposed budget. In early March, the Board of Education will submit its budget to the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen.