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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Beverley Sorenson, background watches as Makay Muridi, left, Lynnda Ochoa and Alexander Lopez-Perez create artwork at Monroe Elementary School in West Valley City Sept. 15.

You've got your CRT, your ITBS, your AYP — all the standardized ways of measuring a school's success. Here's another: a room full of first-graders excited by the gooey prospect of combining shaving cream and food coloring.

One morning last week, as even the boys oohed and aahed and rolled up their sleeves to make what the art specialist called "organic lines" of color, a grandmotherly woman in a pink suit pulled up a chair to watch.

Beverley Sorenson is 85 now but has not slowed down in her 15-year campaign to bring arts education to every elementary school in Utah. A few hours after observing the first-graders at Monroe Elementary in West Valley City, she boarded a plane for Cedar City to meet with school principals. This week she will launch a 23-town blitz to rally parents and educators.

Sorenson is hoping to create a groundswell of support that will convince the Utah Legislature to restore funding that was cut last spring from the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program.

Ask her why Utahns should care about elementary school arts education — why the Legislature should spend money on dance and music and theater and visual arts for kids when budgets are tight — and she'll look at you as if you'd asked why people should refrain from killing each other.

"Because it is good and it is right," she answers.

Sorenson is the widow of James L. Sorenson, who was Utah's richest man when he died in 2008, a multibillionaire medical inventor, businessman and philanthropist. They met when she was teaching kindergarten at a Quaker School in Brooklyn in 1945, after graduating in elementary education from the University of Utah.

After they married, she says, she gave up teaching to "start our own kindergarten." Sorenson herself grew up in Sugar House, in a family where there was always music. Her older sister Helen studied at Julliard and played the piano for dance innovator Martha Graham, and Sorenson herself took piano and dance lessons. She made sure her own eight children were exposed to the arts.

But over the years, Sorenson watched in dismay as arts instruction was gradually eliminated from Utah public schools. And then, in the mid-1990s, she had an epiphany while on a tour of Salt Lake's Lincoln Elementary.

Lincoln has the kind of demographics that earn the label "at risk," but its halls were lined with the students' artwork — not just construction paper pumpkins that all look the same but "originals," each of them framed. Led by a dynamic principal, Sherianne Cotterell, Lincoln had a partnership with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, and a visual artist -in-residence who helped the students create a 2,000-pound bronze sculpture.

This is what every student in every school deserves, Sorenson realized, thinking not just of the students who couldn't afford private lessons but of one of her own grandsons, a privileged young man who seemed uninterested by school. "I said 'This needs to be in all the schools because all the children are at risk.' "

So she figured out who she needed to know and she invited them to lunch at her palatial Cottonwoods home to brainstorm. Gathered around the table were a dancer, a musician, a drama professor and a visual artist. Together they picked out six schools from around the state to begin a pilot project called Art Works For Kids, funded by Sorenson.

The program supplied an arts specialist for each school, who worked side-by-side with classroom teachers to integrate art into the curriculum.

And she had a second prong to her strategy: to make sure Utah's universities began teaching the arts to the state's future elementary school teachers. She eventually endowed chairs at the University of Utah, Utah State University, Southern Utah University and Brigham Young University — and stipulated that the departments of arts and education actually collaborate with each other.

In 2002, Sorenson convinced the Utah Legislature to fund a five-year, 12-school pilot project, but it was cut short when state coffers dwindled, so Sorenson took up the slack. To date she and the Sorenson Legacy Foundation have donated more than $45 million to pay for arts education initiatives.

In 2008 she was back at the Legislature seeking more state funding. By then, the Utah Arts Council had visited several hundred Utah communities and had discovered that the No. 1 concern was the loss of arts education in the elementary schools, says executive director Margaret Hunt. By then, arts specialists had been cut, and the focus was on No Child Left Behind testing.

Those who watched Sorenson in action at the Legislature describe her style as both gracious and driven. She even convinced lawmakers to visit Salt Lake's Jackson Elementary, an inner-city school where every student learns to play the violin.

Moved by Sorenson and the violin players, the Legislature ended up appropriating $15.8 million to cover arts education for four years in 52 elementary schools in 20 districts.

"Make no mistake about it," says University of Utah president Michael Young, "she is clearly the driving force" behind the projects. At 85, "she has more energy than I do."

Faced with drastically smaller state revenues in 2009, though, the Legislature cut Sorenson's program by 35 percent. The cuts mean the program may not continue after this school year, and certainly the evaluation component of the pilot project — to determine whether and how arts instruction impacts academics, attendance and behavior — will be affected, meaning that it might be harder to convince the Legislature to fund arts education in the future.

That's why Sorenson has launched Friends of Art Works for Kids and will visit 23 Utah towns between now and mid-December (for a complete schedule, visit www.artworksforkids.org), hoping to marshal the support of parents and educators. It's the state's job, she believes, to step up.

Utah House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, is diplomatic but practical when asked about the chances that the program's funding will be reinstated: "It's a worthwhile program," he says. "The challenge now is that we have a lot of worthwhile programs" that await funding.

Here's what happened at Pahvant Elementary School in Richfield last spring: 15 third-graders still hadn't learned their multiplication tables. So principal Selena Terry went to the school's music specialist, Marilyn Erickson, and said maybe those kids could master multiplication if it were put to music. Erickson went right to work making up some jingles for each of the number combinations, and pretty soon most of the children could pass the test.

Whether the arts can actually make children smarter is an as yet unresolved controversy among researchers. But there is evidence that it can improve academic performance. At Jackson Elementary, for example, after years of integrated arts education, students' standardized test scores were 16 percent higher in language arts and 24 percent higher in math compared to another elementary school with similar demographics.

"Knowledge is accessed quicker and retained better" when the arts are combined with academics, says Carol Goodson, fine arts specialist with the State Office of Education.

And there is evidence, says Salt Lake City School District superintendent McKell Withers, that "a narrow focus on just the core subjects actually lowers student performance."

This week, opera composer and educator Carroll Reinhart from Tucson, Ariz., begins his second week at West Valley's Monroe Elementary helping the children write operas, a gig paid for out of Sorenson's own pocket. Sorenson has brought the 85-year-old Reinhart to Utah many times over the past 15 years.

Sitting behind his keyboard in a sixth-grade class last week, Reinhart wrote down the libretto the children dictated for their opera based on the book "A Remainder of One," which is about math but also about the emotions of a bug who feels left out.

"I feel so ashamed/ I didn't impress the queen," the children wrote. "I was left out, all alone, why do I have to be … " Reinhart waited for them to come up with the final word of the stanza.

"Whose opera is this?" he asked the students.

"Ours," they shouted.

"Who's going to have to come up with the word?"

"Us."

Meanwhile, the school's visual art specialist, Katie Cook-Zamora, was getting ready to take the shaving cream and food coloring to the first grade. Soon the children were gleefully making those organic lines of colors.

In order for students to learn, they have to first pay attention and be engaged in the learning process, notes Dee Hansen, associate professor of music education at the University of Hartford and the keynote speaker at a "music and literacy" conference at the University of Utah earlier this month. "It's a matter of engaging your senses, because it's through our senses that we learn."

Monroe Elementary principal Launa Harvey notes that the school ranks sixth among the district's 62 elementary schools for "at-risk" factors (poverty, English as a second language, single parents) but now scores in the top 10 on standardized tests. And the school now boasts an astounding 97 percent attendance record. Harvey thinks a big reason why is the arts program and after-school arts classes it has spawned.

Education researcher Tim Bothell, formerly of BYU, reports that principals whose schools have been involved in the Sorenson arts program have seen attendance go up and discipline problems go down. "That's a good return on investment," he figures.

Now Beverley Sorenson just has to convince the Legislature to save arts education in these 52 elementary schools. Then she'll set her sights on the other 462.

e-mail: jarvik@desnews.com