Elementary schools are on their way to becoming more exciting.

Thanks to a $12 million donation — directed at arts and education within the University of Utah — students, faculty and staff can move forward with an integrated studies and curriculum program that promises to enhance learning in public schools.

"We have always said this is Utah's university, and anything we can do to improve the quality of life for Utahns is what we like to do," said U. President Michael K. Young. He said the gift will make possible the integration of training people who know what to teach and people who know how to teach.

"Integrating arts into the education of our young students early in their development will have a profound effect on their future learning, not only in the arts, but in all areas, including math, sciences and language," Young said, adding that the program has already seen results such as decreasing absenteeism rates and behavioral problems, and increasing performance levels across the board.

The Sorenson Legacy Foundation announced the gift Monday as an extension of efforts already happening at the U. It will help to develop the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex, near the southern entrance of campus. Sorenson calls it her "dream come true" to materialize projects that have been in motion for more than a decade.

"Art education is essential to the success of children as individuals and as citizens," she said. But no single group can bring quality art teaching programs to Utah schools; we all have to work together."

The complex will integrate the expertise and practices of math, science, history and language arts, to produce a training model unlike any other in the country, said Michael L. Hardman, dean of the U.'s College of Education.

"You'll never see all these disciplines together like you'll see with this program," he said, adding that integration has been in effect, teaching teachers how to better teach core subjects, for several years.

Subjects are traditionally taught using what Hardman calls the "silo approach," allowing a block of time for each topic. Sorenson's idea incorporates "inquiry-based learning," allowing students to "be a part of what they learn," Hardman said.

Sorenson is a former elementary school teacher who founded Art Works for Kids, a program that brings music, dance, theater and visual arts into many Utah schools and promotes keeping them there when budget constraints often threaten cutbacks in those areas of the curriculum.

"It gives our students an additional tool to use in nonarts subjects," said Raymond Tymas-Jones, dean of the U.'s College of Fine Arts, which received the $12 million gift. "They are coming out of the College of Education with a knowledge base to use as part of their pedagogy."

In addition to housing the Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program, the new facility will feature classrooms, practice and performance venues, various research and outreach centers and university clinics. Young said it is an integral part of opening the campus to the community and encouraging an interdisciplinary approach. The facility is scheduled to open in 2011 and will cost nearly $30 million to complete. For more information about the initiative for integration and the Sorenson Complex, visit artsed.utah.edu.

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