Berlin Intermediate School Honored For Focus On Arts

BERLIN – The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recognized Berlin Intermediate School (BIS) this week for its arts immersion program.

BIS, one of just five schools nationwide to be honored, received the National School of Distinction in Arts Education designation for the 2007-2008 school year.

The award honors schools that have made the arts an integral part of the curriculum.

Two other schools in Maryland were also honored with the award, Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md. and Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md.

BIS Principal Dr. John Gaddis said the award was a result of the commitment that’s been made by the teachers.

“I think we’re a unique school. We really do emphasize getting the arts into the curriculum,” said Gaddis. “The staff here has done a wonderful job…they are committed to this and that’s why we got the award.”

BIS Vice Principal Dr. Donna Main oversees the arts immersion efforts at the school.         

“It’s very validating,” Main said.

Worcester Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Dr. Richard Walker said the award was well deserved.

“We are very proud of Berlin Intermediate School for being selected as one of the top-five arts education schools in the nation,” Walker said. “It is not surprising that Berlin Intermediate was selected.  As our first arts immersion school, the instructional team at Berlin Intermediate fully understands how to make natural connections between curriculum and the arts.  Adding this creative dimension to instruction enhances student learning.”

The award comes with a $1,000 honorarium and the chance to perform on the Millenium Stage at the Kennedy Center.

The honorarium will be deposited in the BIS arts immersion budget and used to bring artists in residence to the school.

BIS brings in artists in residence through a grant from the Maryland Arts Council, which lets the school take advantage of the strong local arts community. Last summer featured a screenpainting workshop at BIS, concentrating on the natural regions of Maryland. Last year, dance groups and storytellers took part in the artists in residence program.

BIS has been an arts immersion school since 2004, under the tenure of former principal Janet Simpson, and is the first arts immersion school in Worcester County. Snow Hill Middle School and Pocomoke Middle School have now joined BIS as arts immersion schools.

“It really is a different approach to learning,” Main said. “It really does help kids think creatively and do problem-solving.”

Arts immersion education uses drama, visual arts, music, and more to enhance academic lessons. Students might act out a short story, for example.

The initiative is schoolwide and is included in BIS’ accreditation for growth plan, which calls for every teacher at BIS to integrate the arts into academic instruction.

As an example, Gaddis described an ancient Egypt unit studied by sixth graders with students using math to scale up Egyptian death mask images and then making their own mask, learning about scale, symmetry, ancient Egyptian customs, and mythology along the way.

“They’re going to remember it because their experience ties in,” said Main.

A summer session concentrating on “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling included acting, dancing, native drumming, and the culture of India.

Poetry writing during after-school activities might include illustrating the poem, Main said.

Math and music come together when students learn fractions, with musical notes as examples. Students even write their own musical themes, she said.

“It all fits in,” Gaddis said. “It’s woven into the lesson.”

The arts immersion movement is gaining strength and support across Maryland as more school systems begin to adapt their curriculum.

“It’s catching on. It’s catching fire,” Gaddis said.

The arts approach accommodates many different learning styles. A child who has difficulty writing down his understanding of a reading might act it out instead.

“A hands on approach is really what makes the difference,” Gaddis said.

Main said the program has helped with school pride as well since the work is displayed prominently throughout the school.

“I think we’ve seen enhanced pride in the school. We have a lot of student work on display. The students are proud of what they do,” Main said.

Test scores continue to improve at BIS, though Gaddis said faculty offers so many interventions that he could not attribute the increase solely to arts immersion.

“Students are learning and they’re having so much fun they almost forget they’re learning,” Gaddis said. “Our test scores at BIS have steadily increased. It doesn’t take away anything.”