When Julie Toole started teaching at Pablo Casals Elementary in west Humboldt Park in 1992, the school offered music classes and an after-school program that taught students everything from tap dancing to violin.

“Now the only after-school activity offered is tutoring related to standardized testing for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills,” says Toole, who has been the school’s sole art teacher for the past two years and just received her master’s in interdisciplinary art from Columbia College.

“The kids are upset that their school is named after a musician and they don’t have a music program. They don’t have sports teams [except for a boys basketball team]. They don’t have assemblies. They don’t have performances. They don’t have recess. There’s just been this pressure to bring up our scores.

“You can do really well on your grades and attendance and behavior, but if you don’t perform well on the test you can be retained,” she says. “For eighth-graders that’s a big deal–no graduation, no high school. They’re really concerned about that.”

The curriculum changes–which included dumping the music teacher in favor of a writing lab position–came about in the wake of a 1996 School Reform Board decision to require that third-, sixth-, and eighth-graders meet minimum Iowa scores in reading and math before being promoted to the next grade. That same year the school board, under the direction of CEO Paul Vallas, put 109 schools on probation for low test scores. Casals is not on probation, says Toole, but is “close to it.” Although scores have gone up 10 percent since the changes, she says such increases are often inaccurate representations of students’ abilities. Before she was the art teacher she had special education students who often guessed on every answer, yet would sometimes leap three grade levels at a time.

For her master’s thesis Toole wanted to create a collaborative installation, but the project didn’t take shape until she got input from her students. “I wanted my kids to experience how art can change people’s minds,” she says. “That’s why we decided to do it at school. I wasn’t interested in doing my art in a gallery setting.”

In January she began meeting with a group of nine eighth-graders. After doing journal exercises, looking at slides of site-specific installations, interviewing their classmates, and taking pictures of their most and least favorite parts of the school, the kids decided that the installation would focus on standardized testing. “They want people to experience what it’s like to be under that kind of pressure, and give suggestions they have for making things better,” says Toole. Some of their ideas include starting a sex education program, reinstating the music program, adding recess, and offering a more diverse range of after-school activities.

The group used equipment and materials they had on hand. One video, for example, was shot with security cameras and features musical instruments Toole and her students found in a locked closet. An overhead projector is integrated into a poetry performance and a sound piece will be played over the school’s intercom system.

The hallways will feature a series of 18-by-24-inch photos of students expressing how they feel on the day they receive their test scores; these will be interspersed with enlargements of the Iowa test with either “pass” or “fail” stamped across them. There will also be a movement piece performed in a classroom and some interactive exhibits, a reception, and an information table in the lunchroom. Instead of a guest book, visitors can fill out postcards to send to Vallas, Governor Ryan, and other politicians.

Toole’s students made the videos, snapped the photos, and conducted the interviews. “I think they’re happy to feel like they have a forum,” she says. “I’m trying to teach them that art is a form of communication and that sometimes you can say things with art that people can’t hear another way.”

In the midst of their work, they learned that their principal, who supports the project, is retiring; a replacement will be chosen in the next two weeks. One exhibit in the lunchroom will include a seven-foot-tall plywood silhouette of the principal, which students are encouraged to plaster with suggestions for his replacement; after the show it will be presented to the local school council. “That’s the main audience we’re doing this show for,” says Toole. “Hopefully they’ll show up.”

In May, one of the students involved in the movement piece–whom Toole describes as brilliant–learned that she had failed the Iowa test and would have to go to summer school.

“I’m not saying the Iowa test is bad,” says Toole. “We realize kids have to be measured someway. But we’re saying to de-emphasize it a bit and make a more enriching environment and they might do better.

“It’s not like we have the answers–that if things change the test scores will shoot through the roof. But other things are important too.”

“School Reform” takes place Friday, June 8, from 7 to 9 PM, with performances at 7:15 and 8:15. It’s at Pablo Casals Elementary School, 3501 W. Potomac, and it’s free. Call 773-534-4444 for more information.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.