A+ Schools Program

Michelle Mazan Burrows , Director
North Carolina Arts Council, NC Department of Cultural Resources
109 E. Jones Street
Raleigh, NC 27699




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Whole school comprehensive arts infused reform using summer institutes and ongoing professional development; various networks of schools, teachers, and school leaders; and strategic systemic approaches to change schools.

Participating North Carolina School Educators and communities
Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the North Carolina School of the Arts
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – location of principal investigator for pilot evaluation and eight-year follow-up study
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and the North Carolina Arts Council, current home of the A+ Schools Program

Purpose: The mission of the A+ Schools Program is to “create schools that work for everyone—students, teachers, administrators, parents and the community” (Howell). This education reform initiative puts to work the idea that arts can contribute to “comprehensive school reform that improves learning opportunities for all students”(University of North Carolina Greensboro).

Conceptual basis: The A+ Schools Program is a whole school re-form model that views the arts as fundamental to teaching and learning in all subjects. The Program is grounded in eight A+ Essentials ™, identified by the NC Network of teachers, principals, A+ Fellows, and Program staff as the key components of the Program.

  • Combine arts integration 
  • Offer continuous practitioner-led professional development 
  • Use statewide support networks for teachers and administrators to implement a state mandated curriculum and meet accountability standards. 
  • Create school partnerships with parents, community cultural resources, colleges and universities, and the media. 
  • Initiate educators via a five-day residential Institute for the entire staff including administrators, classroom teachers, arts teachers and other specialists (media, technology, PE, ESL, reading) 
  • Bring other important adults to the institute through schools, such as school secretary, parents, and community partners, particularly arts partners. arts community and teacher assistants to kick off comprehensive, ongoing professional development.

The A+ Schools Program is an education reform movement that was initiated by the Kenan Institute for the Arts in 1995 in North Carolina with 25 schools representing the diversity of schools and communities across the state. Soon, new schools joined the Network and later, through a partnership with Appalachian State University, A+ developed seven new A + Schools in the western part of the state. The NC Program now encompasses 44 pre-K-12 public schools across North Carolina, including 38 Title I schools. In July of 2010, the Program moved to the North Carolina Arts Council and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and now serves over 1,400 certified teachers, 400 teacher assistants, 80 administrators, and 17,000 students across the state (Howell).

In 2000, the North Carolina Program began a four-year process to assist the Kirkpatrick Foundation in Oklahoma City in establishing a statewide A+ Schools Program in Oklahoma. In 2001, the North Carolina Program worked with a private Arkansas foundation and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to assist in establishing a statewide A+ Program in Arkansas. The three state Programs formed a national consortium to further their mutual interests and guide the development of future statewide A+ Schools programs.  The Oklahoma statewide A+ Schools Program continues to grow and thrive, however, the Arkansas statewide program, following funding issues, has dissolved. 

In trying to affect teacher and school change, A+ approaches reform on many levels, some directly related to professional development, some influencing teachers through more subtle strategies, including: 
  • Curriculum/Instruction changes including: increase arts instruction in all four arts disciplines, cultivate two-way arts integration, provide hands-on learning opportunities, approach curriculum as integrated and thematic. (University of North Carolina Greensboro) p.3 
  • Organizational changes including: increased professional collaboration and ownership, strengthened school networking and partnerships, introducing educators to systemic thinking, encouraging creative adaptations unique to the local level.
Key A+ professional development components include:

Intensive Institutes: Intensive five-day institutes for whole school to immerse in core A+ philosophy, adapt to local school context. Teachers and administrators brainstorm strategies, discussed, and developed their professional work. Formal teaching modeled the hands-on, arts integrated approach used with students. Earlier institutes focused primarily on elementary school needs; these were later adapted and spun off into institutes focused on middle and high school strategies. On-site institutes evolved, offering options not only for older school populations, but to tailor professional development to each school community’s development stage and needs. These continued improvements led to increased professional capacity, by individual teachers and whole schools (North Carolina A+ Schools).

A+ Fellows: Arts specialists, classroom teachers and teaching artists who lead their colleagues, tapping their deep involvement in A+. Now, they comprise the primary expertise offered through the institutes, contributing to stability of the network.

A+ Network: The collective participating network of A+ Schools helps guide the evolution of this reform community, provides a forum for pooling promising practices and troubleshooting challenges, as each school interprets the tenets of A+ in its own way. The group works together to speak with one voice to the General Assembly, apply for grant funding, and develop subcommittees to meet particular needs, including groups dealing with authentic assessment as well as for principals and A+ school coordinators.

A+ Conferences: The A+ Schools Program hosts an annual "Best Practices" Conference focusing on the current needs of schools. These are attended by educators from A+ Schools and other schools in NC and the US.

Philosophically, A+ also encourages each individual school to exercise its creativity and adapt the overall goals to its particular circumstances and priorities. So, various A+ schools have adapted school-based professional development approaches that enhance the arts infused learning environment, such as team teaching and lesson demonstration and analysis. “Wise practices” arising from various members A+ Network include: learn from evaluation, tap multiple intelligences, integrate curriculum through arts and thematic units, communicate through various channels, invest in professional development, expand and enrich approaches to assessment, strengthen family/ community involvement, create inclusive governance structures, and utilize networks (North Carolina A+ Schools).

Linking Leaders
In the early 1990’s, an arts activist and idea person Ralph Burgard, aligned with local Wilmington, North Carolina arts council leader Bonnie Pierce, to try to recreate the surprising and stunning academic success of two racially and economically diverse arts-based schools: Davidson School in Georgia and Ashley River Elementary School in South Carolina (North Carolina A+ Schools). An unsuccessful attempt at acquiring National Endowment for the Arts funding brought the idea to the attention of Jeanne Butler, the soon-to-be director of a new North Carolina foundation called the Kenan Institute of the Arts (Kenan). A statewide pilot of the A+ approach would give Kenan a clear application of its principals – something to focus on, a way to make a difference. They planned to combine: 
  • daily arts instruction 
  • thematic, interdisciplinary teaching 
  • Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory (Gardner)
Professional development and arts-infused school reform were at the heart of the program.

Political Groundwork
Bringing on the politically savvy Vincent Marron as Associate Director, Kenan ensured it would have the capacity to partner and move the idea forward. Joined by Gerry Howell, a longtime educator, the team filled out. From 1993-1995, they developed committees to lay the programmatic and political groundwork to pilot a reform. These planning committee created a “brain trust,” bringing teachers, administrators, politicians, and community members together to plan strategies for including all students – many who had been excluded from traditional reform. The beauty of this group is it evolved into the A+ Network, which turned out to be the heart of the success of this effort – a non-hierarchal North Carolina learning community that could candidly troubleshoot while providing critical peer support to the evolving reform effort. This empowered educators in a state where teacher striking was illegal and educators were seen as apolitical. The program committee included educators, administrators, and state agency officials who ultimately drafted the initial guidelines. The policy committee included education school deans, superintendents, and arts councils directors, shaping policy and implementation strategy. The creative committee included an executive from the Governor’s office, CEO’s and other power players, offering ideas and strategies for arising challenges.

The Governor liaison proved strategic. Rather than use private monies, they decided to seek public support for legitimacy. And, with the Governor’s support and a line in his budget, they bypassed some of the legislative wrangling, securing $500,000 – one-third of their hoped for funding in 1995, the first year of implementation. In a time of cutting and newly elected officials in the politically tumultuous year of 1994, any funding was a success. The shortfall in funding was met by creativity, adaptation, and local investment from schools and their communities, and a developing entrepreneurial attitude among participating educators. Meanwhile, they secured private funding for a rigorous qualitative and quantitative five-year evaluation, which they identified as critical for continued support.
A+ Schools began its publicly/privately supported education reform in 1995. Over the four year pilot, A+ continued to receive similar levels of funding, but with decreased state funding each year. But, by year 4, with bipartisan support emerging, they received designation as one of the state’s comprehensive school reform programs, funded by U.S. Department of Education Goals 2000 funds. Schools could now apply for three-year grants ranging from $50,000 - $100,000.

Politically, they made the case by aligning to the statewide interest in school reform. As it became apparent that the state’s standardized testing approach was narrow, they developed an assessment committee from their network to exam and develop more appropriate assessment practices for their arts-infused reform. Both a statewide assessment conference and a teachers workbook culled from the work of the A+ Schools leant a more rigorous credibility to the efforts, while giving participating educators new ways to assess student learning. This use of committees continued, with eight committees from their Network to help guide and monitor as the pilot ended: communications/ public-relations, research and documentation, partnership with online network LEARN NC, professional development for original 24 schools, professional development for self-funded second generation schools, A+ Fellows committee for retreat planning, and an A+ Coordinating committee to manage across the others. A+ Fellows, teachers with tremendous experience in the program, took on greater roles in the planning, coordination, and guidance of the effort, as well as spearheaded the professional development itself.

Scaling Up
In 2000, North Carolina A+ began assisting other interested states in establishing statewide A+ Schools networks in collaboration with private foundation partners. Not without challenges, Howell mentioned to be careful of expanding too quickly. The nature of the statewide network turned out to be extremely important, with its unique political and cultural environment. But, as of 2010, Oklahoma A+ Schools program has 65 schools. Arkansas A+ Schools has sinced dissolved due to funding issues.  In 2003, the three state programs formed the National A+ Schools Consortium, to support each other and guide growth.

In December 2005, the first A+ Schools National Conference was held in North Carolina and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching support from two foundations. The Conference was designed by a ten-member National Planning and Advisory Committee using the A+ model of engagement and collaboration and was part of a two-year project to document and present the development and evaluation of the A+ Schools Program since its inception in 1993. The purpose of the Conference was to increase national awareness of and accessibility to the A+ Schools Program beyond the initial North Carolina, Oklahoma and Arkansas programs.

North Carolina A+ continues to bring new North Carolina schools into the Network and provide assistance to other states and regions including North and South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a school district in London, England.

In 2003, North Carolina A+ moved from its home at the Kenan Institute to a university home that would allow it to better affect pre-service teacher education and become more involved in research. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) offered the possibility to work with the schools of education, music, and the departments of art, theatre and dance. A+ worked with professors across the arts departments, elementary teacher education, and curriculum instruction to collaborate with the A+ Fellows with plans to redesign arts courses taught for elementary teachers.  In the future, A+ hopes to become more involved with action research with classroom teachers and A+ Fellows. (Howell interview)

In July 2010, following the retirement of long-time Executive Director, Gerry Howell, the A+ Schools Program moved to its new home at the North Carolina Arts Council and in September of 2010, Michelle Mazan Burrows, long-time A+ Teacher and Fellow, became the new Director of the A+ Schools Program.  A welcoming event in November of 2010, the A+ Homecoming, brought together A+ Principals, coordinators, teachers, Fellows and friends from acorss the state.

The NC A+ Schools Program has been supported by public and private funds. Since 1995, the program’s budget has been supported on average by approximately one-third state or federal funding, one-third private funding and one-third local funding from the school districts. Support has included: 
  • Generous funding from the Kenan Institute for the Arts until 2005 
  • Contributions from private foundations and corporations 
  • State Legislative Funding designated for A+ Schools 
  • Supplemental funding from UNCG
  • Contracted professional development services to schools and districts
  • Comprehensive School Reform Development grants from the state 
  • Federal Magnet school grants (training) 
  • Line items in budget (for arts specialists)
The preparation and three-year implementation plan includes an intensive five-day institute, two additional summer institutes and participation in A+ Network activities and events, according to Howell. The cost over the three years ranges from $75,000 - $100,000, depending on the size of the school and the number of schools attending each institute. It’s more cost effective to train a larger or multiple staffs. No matter the size, she includes at least 6 training staff representing all four arts disciplines, a curriculum specialist, and an administrator. Using college dorms and off season hotel rates can save funds.

It may seem like a large people investment, but according to Gerry Howell, they find more success using this systemic approach than the disappointing failures when a few educators are expected to share their inspirational training with colleagues on their own time.

Findings :
After the four year pilot, researchers found the following changes:

  • Instructional practices offer deeper learning opportunities 
  • More collaborative 
  • Assuming leadership roles 
  • Richer assessment techniques
  • Increased equity – more students have greater access to the curriculum 
  • Increased engagement in the curriculum and learning 
  • Improved attitudes, attendance, behavior 
  • Assessment results – in the arts, using enriched assessment tools, and in certain circumstances in other academic areas, using the state’s standardized tools.
  • Arts legitimized – brought to the center of the curriculum 
  • Organizational capacity enhanced 
  • Better inter- and intra-communication 
  • Identity as A+ schools
  • Number of partnerships increased 
  • Parent participation increased, more aware of curriculum 
  • Parents are more affiliated with A+ Schools
Sustainability happening due to: 
  • the use of the arts in school reform
  • the high quality, practitioner model of the professional development
  • the maintenance of a strong network to support teachers and administrator (pilot evaluation and an eight-year evaluation funded by the Ford Foundation (Howell))

A+ Schools latest findings can be found in their book:  Creating and Sustaining Arts-Based School Reform: The A+ Schools Program.

Lessons Learned:
Start with vision. Evaluators stated that A+ is a successful comprehensive education reform because it begins with a vision of arts-integrated instruction creating enhanced learning opportunities for all students, but “other changes in school practice, in areas ranging from assessment to scheduling to parent involvement, radiate out as necessary to achieve that central vision”. (Corbett, et al.)

Think systemically. Remember that schools are a dynamical system, an organization that is constantly changing – learning, assessing itself and developing. Schools also exist within a larger system and must negotiate and manage external and internal demands. Systemic change managed from within the school is the only sustainable school reform.

Whole school. Involve the whole school in the reform: the arts specialists, teachers, administrators, the aides, the school secretary “everyone who interacts with the children in that building” (Gerry Howell interview 11.9.05). Use the initial intensive institute experience to begin to develop a shared culture around the arts-based reform.

“…so that everyone has a common shared experience, not just the information or the instruction. But, it is about sharing the understanding and shape of (the reform)…. Team building is great, but we’re really talking about building relationships – and that takes time, and that takes having everyone present and on board…. ” (Gerry Howell interview 11.9.05)

Intensive Institute. The initial five-day arts-integrated residential summer Institutes serves as the primary change agent for participating schools. To join the A+ Network, 85% of a school’s staff and 100% of its administrators must attend the A+ Institute together. Evaluations suggest “85% participation is the ‘tipping point’ for successful and sustained implementation after the Institutes”, according to Howell (Howell). Teachers continue to describe the five-day experience as “transformative.”

Sustained support. High expectations, experiential professional development, and supportive and collaborative work within the A+ Network serve as the primary vehicles enabling schools to sustain the reform at their schools (Howell).

Process lessons from arts. Recent evaluators say that the A+ approach to school reform used lessons from the arts and focused on the process not the product. In doing so, the ‘product’ emerged as both student achievement and sustainable school reform for all students. The arts were key to the sustained changes in teaching approach and in the organizational structure of the schools.

Useful Tools:
Oklahoma A+ Schools 


A+ Schools. "Teaching in Ways That Children Learn." The Good North Carolina Elementary School; Making the Vision a Reality for All Children; A Resource Guide for Elementary School Improvement From the North Carolina Education and Law Project. The Good North Carolina Elementary School. 121-27.

A+ Schools . A+ Schools Program Description. Web Page. URL: http://aplus-schools.uncg.edu/programdescription.pdf. 31 August 2003.

Corbett, Dick, et al. Creating and Sustaining Arts-Based School Reform: The A+ Schools Program . NC: A+ Schools, 2000.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1983.

Gilliam, Steve. "UNG Will Be New Home for A+ Schools Program in North Carolina." 2003. 1-2.

Howell, Gerry. "A+ Schools Program, University of North Carolina at Greensboro."

---. "Phone Interview With Gerry Howell."Dawn M. Ellis. 2005.

Nelson, Catherine Awsumb. "Executive Summary."The Arts and Education Reform: Lessons From a Four-Year Evaluation of the A+ Schools Program: 1995-1999. Bruce Wilson, Dickson Corbett, and George Noblit. Winston-Salem, NC: North Carolina A+ Schools Program, 2001.

Noblit, George and others,  Creating and Sustaining Arts-Based School Reform: The A+ Schools Program. New York: Routledge, 2009.

---. North Carolina A+ Schools Program: Creativity. NC: North Carolina A+ Schools, 2005.

---. North Carolina A+ Schools Program: History. NC: North Carolina A+ Schools, 2005.

---. North Carolina A+ Schools Program: Identity. NC: North Carolina A+ Schools, 2005.

---. North Carolina A+ Schools Program: Wise Practices. NC: North Carolina A+ Schools, 2005.

North Carolina A+ Schools Program. "The A+ Schools Program: School, Community, Teacher, and Student Effects." North Carolina A+ Schools Program: Schools That Work for Everyone : 1-27.

---. "The Arts and School Reform: Creativity in A+ Schools." North Carolina A+ Schools Program: Schools That Work for Everyone : 3-10.

Rabkin, Nick, editor. Putting the Arts in the Picture, 2004.

Rourke, Jim. "Why Is Mona Lisa Smiling?" Principal Leadership (2001).
University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The Arts and Education Reform: Lessons From a Four-Year Evaluation of the A+ Schools Program: 1995-1999. University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2001.

University of North Carolina Greensboro. North Carolina A+ Schools Programs: Schools That Work for Everyone: Effects. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Greensboro.

---. North Carolina A+ Schools Programs: Schools That Work for Everyone: Executive Summary. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Greensboro.

University of North Carolina Greensboro. A+ Schools National Conference - About the A+ Schools Program. 2006. Web Page. URL: http://aplus-schools.uncg.edu/whoweare.shtml. 26 January 2006.

Wilson, Bruce, Dickson Corbett, and George Noblit, Evaluators. Executive Summary: The Arts and Education Reform: Lessons From a 4-Year Evaluation of the A+
Schools Program 1995-1999. Pre-publication draft ed. North Carolina School of the Arts, NC: Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, 2001.


Target Population:
Arts Administrators

Arts Specialists

Classroom Teachers

Education Administrators

Other Educators

Other Population


Professional Developers

Teaching Artists

Arts Discipline:


Interdisciplinary arts and other subjects



Visual Arts

Entry Points:







Education Thread:
Education Reform