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While Virginia's SOLs attempt to raise the bar on academic achievement, what do they do for students' exposure to the arts?

Making the SOL Connection

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Schools aren't the only institutions scrambling to meet Virginia's new Standards of Learning. Since the SOLs were implemented, many of Richmond's cultural institutions have also had to change the way they do business to survive Virginia's sweeping educational reform.

In some cases, the SOLs have had a positive effect: At institutions such as The Valentine, the Virginia Historical Society and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, school-group attendance has increased as educators seek creative ways to enhance the material they are teaching in the classroom. But at other cultural institutions, where the connection between their offerings and the Standards of Learning is not so clear-cut, administrators have had to make big changes in the way they market their programs to schools.

No institution knows this better than Theatre IV, the Richmond-based producer of plays for school audiences across the country. The 24-year-old institution is experiencing a $200,000 shortfall in its $3.8 million annual budget because of cancellations and a reduction in bookings of its in-school performances in Virginia schools. "Schools have been put under immense pressure this semester to concentrate their efforts on SOL test preparation and to eliminate field trips and in-school programming," a recent Theatre IV fund-raising letter reads.

"We had not anticipated this for a second," says Theatre IV's Artistic Director Bruce Miller. "Until the SOL scores were released I think people did not realize the extent to which the schools were not going to pass the test."

Miller says Theatre IV first noticed a drop-off in bookings last December when about 26 percent of its market said it wouldn't be able to book shows the next semester "because there was an increased emphasis on preparation for the SOLs." About a week after SOL test scores were released to the public in January and only 2.2 percent of Virginia schools met the standards, Miller says Theatre IV began hearing this SOL refrain on a daily basis.

The development is ironic, considering Theatre IV has built its reputation on educational theater with plays such as "Shake Hands with Shakespeare," and "Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad." It is also confirmation of some people's worst fear about the Standards of Learning: that as schools concentrate on the core areas tested by the SOLs — English, math, science and history — that areas such as art, music and theater will be left behind.

Michelle Walter, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, says her organization recently experienced a slight decrease in attendance at its "Discovery" concerts held for local schools this March. "In general, spring is when [schools] are focusing more on the test and less on the arts," she says. At the same time, however, interest in the symphony's youth orchestra and summer music camp remains strong.

"It's not affecting us especially in terms of the bottom line right now, but we also are not ignoring it," she says. As a parent of two elementary school children, Walter says she is acutely aware of the emphasis on SOLs. "The onus is on us as arts administrators to make sure the value of arts education is understood."

Miller says Theatre IV has already made changes in the way it markets its programs. For the first time, Theatre IV will send out a separate Virginia edition of its national brochure outlining the specific Standards of Learning each of its shows can be applied to.

The Valentine and the Virginia Historical Society have successfully taken this same approach with their educational programming since the SOLs were implemented.

"In everything we do and send out ... we have to show that there is a clear SOL connection," says Bill Obrochta, head of educational services at the Historical Society. With its new "Story of Virginia" exhibition, that's been easy to do. Obrochta says he never realized that the SOLs would be such a driving force behind increaded school visitations.

The Virginia Museum has also been proactive in its efforts in making the connection between the SOLs and art with a series of teacher workshops around the state, says David McKinney, the Virginia Museum's manager of the office of statewide partnerships.

"It is my personal opinion that what has happened for us is a plus," McKinney says. "Oftentimes schools thought of trips to a museum as the icing on the cake. What we have shown them is that they can use these trips to teach across the curriculum."

Kirk Schroder, president of the State Board of Education, and a local entertainment lawyer, says the board plans to begin updating the state's art and music Standards of Learning this month. Although students are not tested in theses areas, Schroder says the board is "well aware that the arts are an important part of every child's learning experience."

"We want to promote arts programs that incorporate the SOLs so [educators] can see these things go hand in hand," he says. "Teachers and schools are also in the marketplace for ideas and programs that assist with what they're doing."

Schroder says the board hopes that updating the standards for arts education in Virginia will send a signal that "arts programs are important and valuable" and will encourage groups such as Theatre IV to make themselves known to the board so they can help get the word out.

Miller says Theatre IV has done just that. He is preparing to meet with the Board of Education so it can get a fuller understanding of the impact of SOLs on arts organizations. "I think that it's terrific that the State Board of Education is interested in taking a global perspective on this issue and figuring out what they can do to support education through arts and culture," Miller says.

While the $200,000 shortfall, the largest in the company's history, is "a pain in the neck financially," Miller is confident Theatre IV can weather the storm, and that once schools become more comfortable with the Standards of Learning, their problem will no longer be an issue. He says, "We have always believed that education and arts and culture are natural allies, and if it takes a bump in the road to bring us all together, then that is just yet another example of how sometimes things work in mysterious ways for ultimate

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