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Students help arts at Perley

Megan Doyle | Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Notre Dame students stepped into South Bend to save fine arts at a local elementary school as its staff prepared to lose funding for some of its most important programs, student government community relations chair Claire Sokas said.

Perley Primary Fine Arts Academy is an arts magnet school inside the South Bend School Corporation. Its curriculum specifically focuses on aspects of the arts, ranging from singing to film to gardening.

“Until last year, Perley had some of the lowest standardized test scores in the country and was considered a failing school,” Sokas said. “However, last year, the principal and the staff at Perley set a goal of 65 percent passing for the [Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus (ISTEP)], and between the fine arts curriculum and constant assessments of reading, writing and math skills, they were able to meet their goal.”

The administration hoped to keep improving during the 2010-2011 academic year, Sokas said.

“The goal the staff decided on this year was 80 percent, which would be a dramatic increase from the year before and would move Perley permanently beyond the ‘failing school’ status,” Sokas said.

However, this hope recently received a blow when the school learned it would lose after-school funding at the end of summer 2011. As the program searches for more funding, Notre Dame students have volunteered at Perley on weekday afternoons.

“While the University and groups in the community are working to find funding to revive the arts program, which had depended on this money, there is no one to facilitate the after-school homework sessions, which teachers had relied on to make sure students were completing homework and had a good grasp on the material,” Sokas said. “These homework sessions were integral in Perley meeting its 65 percent passing benchmark, and the principal has told me that they will be equally important in reaching their goal this year.”

Three to four Notre Dame students work at Perley for an hour Monday through Thursday to help students with their homework while they wait for the bus to the local Boys and Girls Club.

“We are here at Notre Dame because we value education,” Sokas said. “Now we have the opportunity to get off campus into the schools.”

Senior Meaghan Crowley became involved in the programs at Perley as part of a minor in Education, Schooling and Society (ESS). Crowley is analyzing the effect of art on an institution for her senior thesis.

The South Bend School Corporation began its magnet programs to encourage more racial equality in the school system and Perley became a fine arts magnet in 2007, Crowley said.

“The difference is now the kids have more art on a daily basis and in the after-school program,” Crowley said. “Art is integrated in to the classroom, so instead of having a normal math lesson or a normal history lesson the kids might draw or paint to engage what they are doing.”

When Perley’s grant expires, the school will be left without money that was crucial to running the programs. More expensive courses like cooking were already replaced with classes that use fewer resources, such as movement, and the school will rely on volunteers to support the program, Crowley said.

“The after-school programs were funded so area artists would come in and work with the kids,” Crowley said. “A real artist or ballet teacher would come in each week.”

Volunteers from Notre Dame are already planning how they can contribute to the fine arts curriculum next semester by teaching new classes after school, Sokas said.

The after-school program was an important component of fine arts at Perley.

“I can tell that the kids are really, really motivated,” Crowley said. “The discipline problems in the school have gone down because the kids want to be in the after-school program.”

Perley students signed up for the after-school program with no charge but applied for only a certain number of spots. After one disciplinary mistake, a student would lose his or her spot, and the space would be given to another child on the program waiting list.

Junior Shannon Crotty spent Monday afternoon helping elementary students at Perley with their homework.

“In all honestly, I have not done as much service as I would like to here,” Crotty said. “I heard about this opportunity through student government and had free time in my schedule. I love working with kids so it worked perfectly.”

Perley is the closest elementary school to Notre Dame, and students could learn more about the South Bend community close to campus by volunteering at the school, Crotty said.

“This is an opportunity to go out and see the community as well,” Crotty said.

Perley enrolled almost 300 students from the local area, and a majority of these students represented minorities and lower-income families, according to the Indiana Board of Education.

“We are constantly looking for new ways to establish relationships in the community that can be sustained,” Sokas said.

The beND campaign launched by this year’s student government was an effort to address off-campus concerns and improve community relations with the larger South Bend area.

“It is an easy way for us to get into the school and remember that things like learning how to read are integral for the rest of our lives,” Sokas said. “Watching these kids love [learning] reminds me of how lucky I am to have an education. I want them to grow up having the same opportunities.”