But that was before Tomas Revollo became principal of the Lincoln Square school. Early on, Revollo told local school council members that anchoring Waters’s curriculum in fine arts was at the top of his wish list. His challenge to them was simple.
“Why couldn’t we create an environment in school where the kids would always feel excited about being here?” Revollo says.
He used discretionary funds to hire two full-time art teachers, one of whom is now Waters’s director of fine arts, and began recruiting other teachers who had experience or coursework in the arts.
Colorful student murals now cover hallways and stairwells throughout the three-story building. A playground fieldhouse was converted into an art studio. And art teachers regularly plan lessons to complement topics covered by colleagues in other disciplines.
Last spring, the arts education group Whirlwind brought its Reading Comprehension through Drama program to Waters as part of a four-school study. The school could not afford to buy Whirlwind’s services this year— they were free during the study. But some teachers continue to use the techniques they learned from the program’s artists.
For Revollo, who is a proficient piano, accordion and guitar player, art is way to ignite a passion for learning in students.
“We’ve thrown out all of the basal books in this building,” he crows. “That’s boring stuff. No one wants to admit it.” Instead, the school uses literature-based material in thematic units—a recent topic was oceans—that incorporate all disciplines including the arts.
Attendance at Waters is now slightly above the citywide average of 93 percent, but test scores have not fared well. The percentage of lower-grade students reading at or above norm has dropped dramatically.
“This is a totally different set of kids,” says Revollo. More students now come from low-income families or speak limited English, he explains. Primary reading scores are going up, he adds.
Teachers say arts can benefit students emotionally. For example, teacher Maureen Connelly credits the Whirlwind program with bringing a young Bosnian boy out of his shell a few years ago. A recent immigrant, the boy could not speak English and would not talk in his native tongue. Connelly learned that he had witnessed the murder of several family members.
However, the boy slowly began to open up during sessions with Whirlwind artists. He joined group activities, and his eyes became more expressive, says Connelly. One day, he spoke. “More popcorn.”
“I felt like Annie Sullivan in Helen Keller,” says Connelly, who now uses drama exercises with her 1st-graders. “I hope to see [the artists] back some day. It was fun.”