In a sixth-grade math class in the Delta, students are making quilts. They're cutting squares from colorful patterned paper and folding them to make triangles or rectangles. They've measured the squares to make sure they're 3 inches on a side, because if they don't make their squares right, the quilt will be off. They're alternately laughing and concentrating, filling a larger square with their shapes to create their own designs. When they get a bit rowdy, Annette Butler claps her hands three times and the kids stop and clap back. Things settle down again.
A reporter asked a grinning young man after he finished his work what he'd gotten from the activity.
"I think I got a 100!"
That would be an A+ — which also happens to be part of the name of the method that Arkansas A+ program director Butler was demonstrating. This student, enrolled in Arkansas's newly revived A+ schools network, had learned how to measure, the importance of accuracy, some geometry and how to follow instructions on the board properly, but he wasn't fed the information. He hadn't been given a fill-in-the-blank work sheet, but paper full of possibilities. He created art that incorporated the answers to what is a square, what is a rectangle, how many do I need to fill a larger square. And then he exulted, I did this right!
The A+ method of arts-infused education, being promoted by the Thea Foundation in North Little Rock, puts the art in math, the drama in literature, the song in history, and has a proven record of raising test scores, improving discipline and heightening student and teacher satisfaction. Thea Director Paul Leopoulos is convinced of its ability to turn around Arkansas's struggling schools and enriching its high-achieving ones, and he's been knocking on the door of the state Department of Education for years trying to spread the word. A couple of months ago, the door opened a bit, when educators in the department's Learning Services Division gave an audience to Leopoulos and John Brown of the Windgate Foundation, which initiated an A+ pilot program in Arkansas in 2003.
Laura Bednar, the Education Department's associate commissioner for learning services, wasn't able to attend that meeting because of a bout with pneumonia. But she'd met Leopoulos, was impressed with A+ and set up the meeting with her staff, which is searching for ways to help the state's 46 "needs improvement priority" schools and 109 "focus" schools that show a wide gap in student achievement.
"When you look at the schools where this is implemented there are dramatic increases in student achievement and making students feel like they can use their creativity," Bednar said. Principals from Fort Smith — where Cook and Woods elementary schools have been using the A+ model for nearly a decade — have told Bednar that their "students had come alive" because of the method, she said.
Many educational improvement products are pitched to the Education Department; it is "hit with vendors every day," Bednar said. She believes the Thea Foundation is pushing for A+ "for the right reasons. They are not trying to sell something."
But right now, only 12 schools in Arkansas are A+ schools. Leopoulos wants to change that.
Leopoulos' passion for arts-infused education is fueled by what he saw the arts do for his daughter, who, he confessed, he'd once described as an "average student — shame on me." He saw that his daughter's achievements in art classes gave her the self-confidence she needed to excel in academic areas.
When a beaming Thea Kay Leopoulos came home with her painting of musician B.B. King, "It was the first day of the rest of her life," Leopoulos said.
But it was a short life. The beautiful dark-haired teen-ager was killed in a single-car accident in 2001. After the tragedy, her trigonometry teacher called the family to tell them she would have earned an A, though she'd previously struggled in math. She was 17.
The foundation Paul and Linda Leopoulos created honors their daughter's memory by promoting arts education. Its headquarters at Fourth and Main in Argenta offers exhibit space for students and art-related public events, such as the Argenta Arts Festival; raises funds for art supplies for schools across the state, and awards annual visual and performing arts scholarships to graduating high school students. Since 2002, the foundation has distributed $1.5 million in scholarships to 197 students, money that is matched by 20 colleges in partnership with Thea.
Seems like that would keep the foundation busy, but Paul Leopoulos is a driven man, who feels his daughter looking over his shoulder, approvingly.
In 2007, Leopoulos took a trip to El Dorado to deliver an artwork from the Arts Across Arkansas program, a joint Thea and Clinton Foundation program that circulates paintings and drawings to schools, to Hugh Goodwin Elementary. The principal, Phillip Lansdell, "met me at the door. ... If it wasn't for that school and that man ... . He said, 'You ever hear of A+?' He took me on a tour. I got goosebumps."
Here's what Leopoulos saw: A school that in a previous year had had 80 suspensions, but by the third year of its adoption of A+ didn't even have a discipline referral. A school that had been a "focus" school, whose third and fourth graders had scored only 23 percent proficient in literacy and 36 percent in math on the 2005 state benchmark exams, but by the third year of A+ were scoring at 50 percent proficient in literacy and 69 percent in math.
"I called Linda and said, 'I've just seen the answer.' This is it," Leopoulos said. "If all schools in Arkansas did this, we wouldn't need the Thea Foundation."
Lansdell had been a coach and school administrator, but, like Paul Leopoulos, changed course because of a little girl: His daughter had crawled up into his lap and asked why he was too busy to come to her events. Lansdell took the principal's job at Hugh Goodwin, which had just been made an arts focus school and which was one of the first five schools in Arkansas to pilot the A+ program, then funded by the Windgate Foundation. The others were in Fort Smith, Clinton and Little Rock.
"Everybody was a little hesitant" at first, Lansdell said of the teachers. "We'd had a lot of scripted programs in our school ... there wasn't a lot of getting out of the box." Teachers worried it was just one more thing to deal with, and they wouldn't have time. But, Lansdell said, the A+ method offered teachers a way to return to "the way elementary teachers used to ... . It allowed them to get back having fun."
You might expect a coach to have different ideas about discipline, but Lansdell said the fact that the kids were engaged "and wanting to learn" took care of previous problems. The kids, he said, were "walking down the hallways smiling."
About the time factor? "They never have enough time," said Connie Reed, who succeeded Lansdell four years ago when he returned to the administration as athletic director; "It wouldn't matter if we had A+ or not."
In October, Hugh Goodwin third-grade teacher Tobie Sprawls looked happy, too, though she was overseeing mildly noisy and active 8-year-olds who were learning what makes a place urban, suburban or rural, a social studies exercise. Students grouped at tables were looking up definitions of the words on their school-supplied iPads. Sprawls called on them to tell her what they learned and wrote their definitions on the board. Then she handed out little booklets — stapled sheets of blank paper — in which students were to draw pictures that illustrated each word.
The exercise made it easy to see the difference in the way children think and learn, a difference A+ addresses. Some children labored hard over writing their names a certain way before getting to the task at hand. One child asked for larger paper because the country (rural) is so big; a symbolic thinker drew just a gravel road to signify that word. A boy drew a messy room and called it urban because it was crowded and disorganized; a big-picture-thinker mapped a town from a bird's eye view. Girls sitting together at one table all made detailed farms pictures amid much giggling. Sprawls moved constantly around the room, giving help when asked, encouragement to all.
It's a little noisy and it's a little messy and that's all right in the A+ method, because ideas are percolating in young minds.
"It's much easier if they turn to page 17 in their book," Sprawls said later about teaching. It's harder on the teacher to devise ways where the kids can create their way to the answer; she spends hours planning. "But the payoff is a lot bigger," she said. Students remember what they've been taught, because they were more engaged in the lesson, she said, having fun. Sprawls said she believes the method could have an even bigger impact on a struggling school, by giving students the stimulation they aren't receiving at home. They might learn a rap song about the number of sides in a pentagon (and then sing it to themselves during their benchmark tests, as one teacher observed), or act out an event in history, or create the parts of a plant cell with cotton pompoms and construction paper. A+ didn't invent teacher creativity; it just allows it, and, teachers say, it meshes beautifully with the new Common Core curriculum that integrates subject matter and promotes critical thinking. ("What did you do today in math?" a teacher asked a younger boy at Hugh Goodwin as a reporter walked down the hall. "Science," he answered.)
You can't credit A+ entirely with Hugh Goodwin's leap in math and literacy scores; it takes good teachers, too, Principal Reed said. "But it has made a huge effect on our scores, climate and attitude of our school."
In 2012, combined benchmark scores for math for Hugh Goodwin's third and fourth graders were 88 percent proficient or advanced; their combined literacy scores were 87 percent proficient or advanced.
It's a two-and-a-half hour drive to El Dorado from North Little Rock, and Leopoulos, 66, leaves no dead air. He talks about his daughter; his past; his friendship with Bill Clinton, who has pondered the possibility of introducing A+ to Haiti, and artist George Rodrigue, who is starting A+ in Louisiana through his foundation. He talks about the withering of unattended creativity as we age, theories of learning. He is 100 percent sure that A+ could make a huge difference in state schools for pennies on the dollar compared to other programs embraced by school districts, and the resulting achievement would in turn boost the state's attractiveness to new business. His zeal for better education for children fuels hours of talk.
"The power of her life, the power of her soul is what drives me every day," Leopoulos said of Thea. "It's all about this amazing young girl." He compared his daughter's influence to that of the young girl in Pakistan who was shot for advocating girls' education; that girl is "going to change the frickin' world. ... the women's movement has taken a rocket ride to the moon."
The A+ method "meets kids where they are and takes them where they can go," Leopoulos said. "I'm not a flaming liberal" who thinks "failure is impossible," he said, but A+ gives students confidence, a huge part of learning. "My vision is everyone has incredible potential." To hell, he says, with the bell curve, and writing off 25 percent of your students.
The A+ method, which originated in North Carolina, has been adopted by more than 70 schools in Oklahoma. The Windgate Foundation funded the group that brought A+ to Oklahoma — a consortium of Oklahoma college educators called the DaVinci Institute — and made grants of more than a half million dollars in 2002 and 2003 to the University of Arkansas's Great Expectations project, which oversaw the A+ pilot in Arkansas.
Teacher buy-in is critical to the success of any method; A+ is no different. A+ requires whole-school buy-in, summer and monthly training and more preparation. The principal plays a crucial role in the continuing commitment to the program. Thanks to personnel changes, a couple of the state's pilot A+ schools backed off the program, and Windgate dropped its funding in 2006. Hugh Goodwin, Cook Elementary and Woods Elementary, however, embraced the model and kept teaching it. Then, a newly-inspired Leopoulos picked up the ball, turning to the Oklahoma A+ office for advice and training help, getting the Windgate Foundation involved again and organizing the Arkansas A+ Schools network within Thea.
This year, 12 schools in Arkansas are A+ schools. New to the network are Arkansas KIPP schools in Helena-West Helena and Blytheville; Boone Park and Pike View elementary schools in the North Little Rock School District, and Rockefeller Elementary in Little Rock. Baldwin Elementary in Paragould has rejoined the network.
"Paul has given new life and energy" to the project, Windgate's John Brown said. "It helps that he's in Little Rock," because of its proximity to the state's education bureaucracy. "He's very eloquent and impassioned. ... I'm very pleased. I hope the model will grow and will be embraced more broadly."
Cook Elementary Principal Paul Spicer is also glad Leopolous has gotten involved. "It's been very beneficial to us knowing we have an advocate who's not afraid to talk to educators and legislators ... to help us keep this program going," he said. "Plenty of research shows kids who participate in art will score better. We know kids who are involved tend to stay in school" as they progress to graduation.
The Windgate Foundation is subsidizing A+ teacher training, conducted by A+ fellows, many of them retired teachers. One of them, Linda Glickert, is retired from the Paragould School District, which had an A+ program until a principal left. She witnessed a sea change in attitude in the teachers as well as the students: "It was almost like being born again as a teacher."
There is no A+ manual, and fellows don't lay down rules for teachers to follow. The method is fluid, adaptable, fed by the teachers' own creativity. After a long day of in-class training, fellows will "debrief" the teachers on what tweaks are needed to reach all students, no matter their learning style.
Sandy West worked for 31 years in the Batesville School District, which at one time had two A+ schools. She was happy to be back in school as an A+ fellow. "I absolutely loved it," she said of the arts-infused method. "It put the joy back in teaching," she said.
A month ago, West was at KIPP middle school in Helena, where 87 percent of its students receive free or reduced lunches. She was snapping her fingers in front of a room of seventh-graders while she asked them questions, using the beat to bring them to attention. Her task: to teach the word "infer." Her tool: A short story by Leo Tolstoy and what she called "frozen tableaus," in which the students posed to act out a part of the story. Those watching had to infer what the students' poses conveyed: How the boy on his knees with downcast eyes was the story's beggar, for example, though at no time in the story was the beggar on his knees. The only quiet time during the exercise was when students were reading the story. Afterwards, they got to put their heads together with partners on how to do their tableaus, and then got to jump up out of their chairs and pose. "Some learn by what they read, some by what they hear and some by what they see," West told the kids, and that's all right. The reading, talking and posing addressed all three.
Anna Kryzminski, who teaches the sixth-grade class at the KIPP middle school that A+ director Butler was guiding, said the school's math curriculum gets good results, "but it never gives an opportunity for the kids to do things ... pushing their thinking." It may take longer to complete an exercise in the A+ method, she said, but student retention of information is such that it speeds subsequent exercises.
KIPP is in its second year of A+ training at the elementary and middle-school level and its first in high school. KIPP executive director Scott Shively said one reason the school wants to bring more art, music and drama into the classrooms is that he believes it's key to college success, by helping students integrate socially. Another is to keep KIPP enrollment up: "The target, what we wanted to look at, is increasing the joy factor, and decreasing mobility."
Shively talked about how the logical right brain — fed by academics — must sometimes call on the creative left brain to come up with solutions, and he said a KIPP geometry class was an example in giving the left brain more attention. Students wrote personal ads for the denizens of "Quad City": "Parallelogram looking for a similarly congruent parallelogram," read one ad. To do that, the "students not only have to know the material, but tap into their creative side."
"We've always had a strong reputation for academics," Shively said. "What's been powerful is to see how the campus has come to life in a different way."
In August last year, Leopoulos spoke at a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees about A+, and the idea of arts-infused education was met with enthusiasm by several members, including Sens. Joyce Elliott, Mary Ann Salmon and Jimmy Jeffress, the then-chair of the Senate's committee.
Elliott said there was plenty of evidence that the arts got students "turned on. ... I'm not just ready to get out of the box, I'm ready to burn the box." Salmon said she'd been an advocate of arts-infused education "since I was a teacher a hundred years ago."
"We know infusion works," Jeffress said. He said it was one reason why upper-income children succeed: "they have [these] experiences available to them."
"I've been aware of Paul and this program for a number of years," Jeffress said. "We've funded everything in the world except this."
Rep. Johnnie J. Roebuck, vice chair of the House committee and another supporter of Arkansas A+, asked to hear from Tom Kimbrell, the director of the state Department of Education.
Kimbrell's did not match the legislators' enthusiasm. "There are hundreds of programs that could make a difference," he said. He didn't think one method would work for every school.
It appears, however, that Leopoulos' doggedness is making inroads into the state's education establishment.
In December, the Education Department's Bednar said her office intends to ask its specialists to "spread an awareness of the A+ model." That's not the same as adopting it, but it's a start.
The A+ model is also cheap: $60,000 for three years of training for up to 30 teachers: only enough to keep it going. Bednar, the education commissioner for learning services, said program costs vary widely, some exponentially more expensive than A+, but "I believe the A+ Model certainly has promise and lends itself to not only helping improve student performance but also transforming schools and communities — something we can't put a price tag on."