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EDUCATORS SEEK TO FEED ART-STARVED STUDENTS

Suburban students might be getting regular doses of the arts alongside the three R's, but children in the city often aren't quite as lucky.

Ask Lois Johnson, the principal of School 90 and she'll point out that on A Street on the city's East Side, more than 90 percent of the students live below the poverty line.

"You ride down Mills Street, you think World War III has broken out," she said.

It's not the sort of place where you might expect to find 4-year-olds playing classical music. And that doesn't sit well with Mrs. Johnson.

"We should always have the same for the children in this city as what they have out in those suburbs," she said. "Those kids, they should have every single chance to be a part of the arts."

Mrs. Johnson was one of thirty educators and arts advocates who turned out Saturday at West Hertel Academy for a conference on providing arts in education for children at risk. Many speakers related stories of efforts to provide urban students what those in the suburbs often take for granted.

When Mrs. Johnson accompanied her school's children's choir to the Hyatt for a performance a couple of years ago, she watched a group of young violinists perform using the Suzuki method. She looked at that group of talented musicians, she said, and along with the respect for their abilities, there stirred inside her a feeling of unease. Something was wrong.

"There was not one child of color in that group," she said. "Do you think my parents on Mills and A and B and C streets can afford to send their children for $125 a week?"

Inspired by outrage, Mrs. Johnson got on the phone to Howard Lewis, assistant superintendent of federal programs for Title I, the federal program that provides money to educate children who are living in poverty. He found the funding and got 12 violins for the kids at School 90. Last year, the school also hired a professional violinist, and students at School 90 learned to play the violin.

Lewis is an old hand at getting more for students who need it most. Thirty-two years ago, as a beginning teacher, he was assigned the worst batch of kids at Clinton Junior High School. He took those 30 students and focused on their strengths.

For those who excelled in art, he organized an art show. The singers of the group performed at City Hall. The dancers took part in Skidmore College's music and dance program.

These days, educators call that recognizing "multiple intelligences" -- from the traditional, book-oriented linguistic and logical intelligences and beyond.

Intelligence can also be musical or spatial or interpersonal, educators said. That means writing a song or drawing a design or leading a group of people can be just as much a sign of intelligence as writing the perfect sentence or solving a math problem.

In this field, theory can blend into practice quite easily in schools in affluent areas. If a student shows musical aptitude, give her a violin. If a student displays a talent for movement, give him dance lessons.

But for kids who live in places like the East Side, it's not that simple; more often than not, there are no violins in the schools. Dance studios are rare in the inner city.

"We're trying to figure out how to give access to beauty to children. Yes, I am angry about it," said Lorna Hill, who runs the Ujima Theater. "We are outnumbered and outgunned. Art is not commerce, yet it has been turned into that.

Speakers at the conference agreed on the need to infuse arts into city schools. Most voiced a sense of frustration after years of trying to build programs out of nothing.

"You just keep on pushing and pushing and pushing to make things better for children," Lewis said.

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