Art: Settlement Music School Offers Early Education with a Heavy Dose of Arts

The Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program anchors student learning around arts activities, all while meeting state and city curricular expectations.

In 1995, Tarrell Davis went into her interview at Settlement Music School for a position as a social worker. But during the tour, she saw the kinds of early education programs Settlement offered to low-income families. With a background in early childhood education, Davis was asked if she could instead be a teacher. 

“I felt I just wanted to do more with the community where there was more of a need,” Davis said. “By the time we got to [the] office, I didn’t want to be a social worker anymore.”

For over 110 years, Settlement has been driven by a mission that students of all ages should have equal access to an arts education. Here, students in the Greater Philadelphia area are presented with unique opportunities in music, dance, and creative arts education. 

Among the many programs Settlement offers is the Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program, located at the Mary Louise Curtis and the Germantown branches of the school. In this program, children ages 3 to 5 develop skills in literacy, math, and social awareness through an arts-integrated approach to learning. 

Kaleidoscope is a collaborative partner with the School District of Philadelphia pre-K programs. Though Kaleidoscope mostly serves families who qualify for Head Start programs — a federal initiative providing early childhood education and wellness involvement services to low-income families — the program can also accommodate a limited number of fee-paying students at Mary Louise Curtis. 

In total, Davis said, Kaleidoscope serves about 113 children each year and provides financial aid to more than 90% of its students. 

“I will tell you the arts opened up so many different avenues for me as a teacher and how to teach children and reach them in ways through the arts,” Davis said. “The arts provide a variety of ways to learn one thing, because we’re all different learners.”

From 8:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., preschoolers participate in music, dance, and visual arts classes. 

Katie Grosh, acting chair of Kaleidoscope’s parent committee and mother of two preschoolers in the program, said this unique approach to early learning works well for her sons. 

“They are enjoying themselves and thriving in this environment, and they love school,” Grosh said. “And that’s my first priority as a parent, at the preschool and pre-K age, is for my kids to love learning. And if they love learning this content, then it’s the right content for them right now.”

Grosh said Kaleidoscope has been incredibly enriching not only for her kids, but for her and her husband as well.

“We have met a community of people in Philly that is more truly diverse, racially and economically and in terms of perspective, than in any other community I have the privilege of being involved in right now,” she said.

Megan Looby, director of marketing and public relations at Settlement, said what is especially unique about Kaleidoscope is that students are getting to learn in 12 arts classes a week

“I think that’s kind of what sets this specific Head Start program apart from the others,” she said. “Where else can you find a school that you’re sending your kid to, not only for child care purposes, but they’re [also] enriching these children’s lives by visual arts, music arts, and dance arts as well?”

Kaleidoscope’s curriculum focuses on developing the kinds of interpersonal and cognitive skills students need to be prepared for kindergarten. Students transition between arts activities every 40 minutes of the school day.

“We talk about things like patterns, spatial awareness, social awareness,” Davis said. 

In November, class content focused on change. 

“When you go to a music class, the music teacher will be teaching the concept of change,” Davis said. “Maybe change in rhythm or change in a beat or tempo. The same thing with visual art. They can be talking about the change in consistency of the material, or colors, or anything.”

Because students are really interested in the material in classes, they’re paying attention to the work and getting something more out of it than just art, music, and dance, Grosh said. Children start to identify words on the page of a book or develop counting and basic addition skills alongside learning music. 

“Arts education doesn’t mean that it’s provided to the exclusion of literacy or math and science at all,” Grosh said. 

Kaleidoscope instructors create arts curricula that complies with state and school district standards. Under the Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS system, preschoolers are expected to be exposed to substantial math, science, and literacy instruction for a portion of the day. 

Because Kaleidoscope is currently fully funded by the School District of Philadelphia, Davis said they are required to fit their instruction around a published curriculum. Like most pre-K programs in the state, Kaleidoscope uses segments from The Creative Curriculum for Teaching Strategies

In addition to funding from the district, Kaleidoscope also receives donations from foundations and corporations. 

This past November, alongside curriculum anchored around the concept of change, students worked on a unit about trees. Students learned about the science of trees while using counting and arts-integrated skills in each of their classes — such as counting leaves and drawing the structures of trees. 

Without the specific funding Kaleidoscope receives, Looby said these educational opportunities would not be as available. 

“It’s vital in our communities in Philadelphia to make sure that we’re providing our children with exactly what they need,” Looby said. “And not only that but going on to the next level and enrich their lives by arts.”

Amber Denham is a graduate student in Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where she is earning a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months she will be reporting on arts education in Philadelphia.

Photo courtesy of Megan Looby and Settlement Music School.

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