What were the main aims of the initiative?

Total Learning (TL)™ is an arts-infused approach for Grades K-4 general education. Informed by research on how children learn, the effects of poverty, and the challenge of special needs in poor communities, TL is a proven approach to school change that wraps the child in support that addresses her needs – academic, psychomotor, social/emotional, family and community. How? In and through the arts. Embedded professional development shows teachers arts-based strategies, then how to use these strategies to deliver developmentally appropriate curriculum. Children learn joyfully through auditory, kinesthetic, visual and linguistic modalities that match every learning style.

The main aims were

  • To develop a robust initiative from birth–9 that addresses the multiple systems impacting children’s learning and growth (Zigler, 2004);
  • To develop and provide arts-infused (multi-modal, multi-sensory, hands-on, brains-on) curriculum delivery that patterns the brain for learning; taught through intensive, embedded professional development;
  • To support the Board of Education in increasing student achievement;
  • To document the results of this work through an independent evaluator conducting formative and summative assessment.


Location, setting, Scope, key events etc.

Bridgeport, CT is the poorest city in Connecticut, the state with the largest achievement gap in the United States. Situated in the North-eastern United States, on Long Island Sound, the school district has long been underfunded, and decisions are extremely political. Surrounded by wealth, Bridgeport has 33,000 families, half single parent, nearly double the state-wide rate. Grandparents are the primary caregivers in 1 out of 10 families, more than double the state-wide average. 25% of children live in poverty, more than half below the self-sufficiency level. There is twice the rate of infant mortality. Education is underfunded and understaffed. In 2008, 29% reached the state goal in mathematics, 24% in reading, and 31% in writing. Many special needs children in Bridgeport are not formally identified or served and many teachers don’t know how to provide effective instruction for the students who populate their classrooms.


What issues/challenges does the example address?

Teachers in poor communities often have many special needs children in their classrooms, but they have little training to know how to meet those needs. The submitted example describes the overall professional development model, including several stories where very kind and wonderful teachers became extraordinary professionals who delivered the curriculum with every child’s needs in mind.



How was the Initiative implemented?

Bridgeport’s education system was overwhelmed, and was not able to serve the overall and individual special needs of the population (poverty, social/emotional stress, academic and learning differences, physical limitations) with the resources available – fiscally or practically. Total Learning trainers adapted research-based strategies which had been developed and implemented in several other challenging locations, but lacked formal data from independent evaluation.

The professional development design was based on theory and research from several fields:

  • learning theory (learning styles, multiple intelligences, developmentally appropriate practice);
  • brain research (how children learn, and unique learning needs);
  • adult learning;
  • child development, including social/emotional growth and developmentally appropriate practices;
  • curriculum development;
  • arts education and therapy (music, dance, visual art, drama);
  • social dynamics and democracy;
  • the dynamics of poverty and education (social/emotional issues, dependency, abuse, depression, disenfranchisement, etc.);
  • best practices.

A collaborative of community organizations, including arts education IDEAS, LLC who provided the professional development, and The Michael Cohen Group who provided independent evaluation, began work with one pilot classroom during the 2007-08 school year.

Each year, as success was achieved and the program gained teacher and principal support, more classrooms and grade levels were added. The Professional Development component, helped teachers understand how to meet individual student needs through auditory, kinesthetic, visual and linguistic strategies that were delivered by embedded coaching in the classroom.

Key partnerships included the local anti-poverty agency, the district Board of Education, arts education IDEAS (PD), a mental health program at the local hospital, Music Together (birth-4 year olds), and a gold-standard independent evaluator.

In addition, political connections were critical for funding, and included the Mayor’s office, the State Legislature and Department of Education, State and Federal Departments of Health and Human Services, and our State Congressional Representative and Senators in Washington.

This initiative began in Bridgeport in 2007, and is on-going in 2010-11. Teachers require one year of intensive PD, then at least one more year of less intense support as they make the strategies their own. The longer the initiative continues in a location, the more opportunity to develop teacher teams within schools, and teacher leaders to build sustainability within the district.

KEY OUTCOMES & Lessons Learned

What where the key Outcomes? What impact/added value did they prove? What were the biggest challenges?

Total Learning Professional Development was identified as a factor in:

  • turning around very weak teachers (one principal promised ‘anything we wanted’ if we could change one particularly stuck teacher, and he owes us!);
  • helping teachers develop positive classroom climate;
  • increasing student liking of school (parents reported that children cried if they were sick and had to stay home on a “Total Learning day”);
  • increasing student self control and self regulation;
  • decreasing the number of students identified as special needs;
  • increasing student achievement in district-measured disciplines and also the arts, as measured through multi-modal pre- and post-tests; and
  • Increasing teacher enthusiasm for teaching.

In classrooms where there were special needs students, visitors could not usually distinguish between autistic children, for example, and others in the class. One bilingual classroom in 2009/10 had 13 special needs children mainstreamed and was a model classroom for visitors to the program.


Has the initiative been evaluated or are there plans for this in the future?

Total Learning professional development has served 44 Bridgeport classrooms over the past three years, changing classrooms, teaching, learning, and the lives of children. With an independent evaluator conducting formative and summative research, TL has been shown effective with all students, including positive trends for English Language Learners and Special Needs populations. Evaluation is formative and summative, and is on-going. The Michael Cohen Group is the initiative’s evaluator.

Evaluation reports are available on the website


Have any plans been made for future direction of the initiative?

Within the district, we set goals each year depending on funding, and to further the research agenda. We also work with the Board of Education’s Professional Development (PD) vision, to become more explicitly linked to their interests and needs. For the 2010-11 school year, we are adding the element of differentiation through learning ‘studios’ or centres to our arts-based PD.

Within the state, the State Department of Education is very supportive and beginning to communicate about Total Learning to other districts in the state, particularly urban and rural locations.

Arts education IDEAS continues to plan additional initiatives across the United States that focus on specific needs such as visually or hearing impaired, academically challenged, academically or artistically gifted, autistic, etc. We also plan to provide the professional development training through on-line courses before the end of 2011.

The US House of Representatives has a pending bill, The Early Learning Innovation Act that will direct the US Department of Education to request proposals for up to 10 urban districts across the US to create and implement initiatives modelled after Total Learning. This bill has over 20 signatures, and requires 40 to be brought to committee.



Are there further information about supporting materials?


Zigler, E., Finn-Stevenson, M., Hall, N. (2004) The First Three Years and Beyond: Brain Development and Social Policy New Haven, CT. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300103085


Reference Link:

send a message
Send a message

Susan Snyder, Ph.D.

President, arts education IDEAS, LLC

Director, The Total Learning Institute

38 Tory Hill Lane, Norwalk, CT 06853

Tel. (office): (203) 229-0411

Mobile: (914) 325-2074

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