Creative Arts Charter School: Integration of Arts « Center on Educational Governance (CEG)

Creative Arts Charter School: Integration of Arts

Practice Area: Project-Based Learning

Creative Arts Charter School:
Integration of Arts

Creative Arts Charter School

San Francisco, California
Founded 1994
200 students
Grades K-8
44.7% White, 18.9% African-American, 12.1% Asian, 11.1% Hispanic, 13.1% Other
2.6% English language learners
8% Special needs
40.5% Receive subsidized meals
Teachers not part of collective bargaining unit

Source:Center on Educational Governance, 2006.

Creative Arts Charter School (K-8) incorporates the arts into all areas of study and uses projects to teach many subjects at once.

Creative writing is a vehicle to teach grammar and punctuation, literary forms and even the economics of book publishing. Music teaches third-graders fractions as they learn the math behind rhythm, beat, tempo and musical notes. Eighth-grade students learning scale
and proportion turn small drawings into murals.

Each teacher creates his/her own projects and students are allowed to work at their own personal levels. There is no “teaching to the test,” yet the school’s API grew from 589 to 758 in four years. The CACS staff is just as proud that its students learn to become collaborative and expressive young people.


In CACS’s arts program all students in grades K to 3 receive a weekly music, dance and visual arts class. In grades 4 to 6, students choose to focus on either visual arts or music, taking the focus class twice a week and the other class weekly. Seventh- and eighth-graders can choose from visual arts, theater and music for the focal class and for a weekly elective arts class.

To ensure more individualized instruction, students are placed in classes of no more than 24 students; arts classes have 15 students.

Requirements Of Project-Based Learning

According to the director, 80 percent of the school’s $1.4 million budget is spent on payroll. This includes $140,000 for the arts staff payroll and $180,000 in materials and supplies for the arts program, a trade-off for the lack of a vice principal to assist the director in such tasks as grant writing.

CACS’s process of curriculum development means that teachers must invent everything themselves. Lessons must balance the concrete, required skills with the spontaneity of project-based learning, while ensuring grade-to-grade accountability.

Teachers have one hour of paid preparation and collaboration time per three hours of classroom teaching. They have said they would benefit from more collaboration time outside the weekly meetings they call crucial.

A dedicated classroom for each art is a necessity, CACS staff has said, including some sort of theater if possible.

Lessons Learned

With its tumultuous beginning, CACS learned some dramatic lessons in implementing its philosophy.

It opened as a small K-3 school based on the Reggio Emilia philosophy, but the visionary director couldn’t translate her ideas into practice and was quickly removed.

The school became K-8 and implemented a head teacher model. It fell into crisis when no teachers had the desire or training to leave the classroom to assume administrative duties. Legal charter compliance issues resulted.

When the experiential focus for the youngest grades failed to meet state academic expectations, CACS educators shifted the curriculum from a Reggio environment to the current project-based model. “We look for the appropriate balance between project-based learning, traditional academics and arts integration,” the director has said.

A final but far from unimportant challenge: Parents who expect a more conventional learning environment from a school that will never “teach to the testâ” require training as well.


Despite the challenges in launching CACS and realizing its vision of elevating the arts in education, students’ test scores validate the school’s unconventional practice. The school’s API grew from 589 to 758 in four years.

The director has measured that students who attend CACS for more than five years score around the 80th percentile for reading and math: students who spend less than five years at the school score below the 40th percentile.

More than test scores, the CACS staff considers the students’ personal and artistic development as progress. The students and their future high schools, colleges and professions will benefit from these children’s abilities to improvise, think critically and express their ideas.


Center on Educational Governance
Rossier School of Education
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