Simpson Steele, J. (2019). Where Are They Now? Graduates of an Arts Integration Elementary School Reflect on Art, School, Self and Others. International Journal for Education & the Arts 20(11), 1-23.


How do high school students experience art, school, self and others after graduating from an arts-integrated elementary school? This exploratory case study employs elements of narrative inquiry to detail the experiences of six students who graduated from an arts-integrated elementary school. Participants expand and revise their perceptions of non-cognitive factors featured in an earlier study that took place when they were in junior high. Four years later, these students explored what they remembered about their arts-integrated learning experiences and how they connected those experiences with their present interests, choices and dispositions. Patterns converged around the participants’ ongoing interest in the arts, including engagement in arts ensembles and development of artistic sensibilities. They expressed a value for school, and for teachers who provided them with variety of methods and materials. Finally, participants attributed social skills, such as confidence, community and communication to their early experiences in an arts integration school.

Key Findings:

  • Participants maintained a relationship with the arts as teenagers, including ensemble work and artistic sensibilities.
  • Participants had a positive mindset about school, appreciated their teachers and felt they could learn best through variety.
  • Participants felt their early learning at their arts integration school supported their self-concept and their relationships with others.

Significance of the Findings:

This study builds upon an earlier study with the same participants, testing the propositions that emerged from that work. The young people who tell their stories continue to mature, discover what it important to them, and revise their previous perceptions based on their experiences in high school. Having witnessed these stories, the author suggests the participants developed value for school and teachers which serves them in their academic pursuits today. As before, they believe having a variety of ways to learn and express themselves helps them engage with content while balancing their strengths and weaknesses. Their teachers created an environment where they could build confidence over time, developing community and communication skills ― all findings also present in the original study. Some of the themes from the first study did not appear in this one. For example, ‘drive’ did not appear in this study; students did not emphasize gaining a growth mindset or learning how to be persistent or persevere specifically as a result of their arts integration experiences.

Engagement in the arts is a new domain in this study because students are beginning to make independent choices about how they spend their time. These students show a strong tendency to join performing arts clubs and bands ― ensemble types of experiences where they make their contributions within a community of artists. This is not arts integration, but the participants believe arts integration experiences sparked their desire to continue in the arts. Notably, students do not seem to independently engage in artistic expression or engage in arts appreciation by going to concerts, plays or galleries as a result of their exposure to the arts. These six voices provide a glimpse into a much larger picture including how others might perceive arts integration at the elementary school and at other arts integration schools across the state and nation.


The exploratory nature of this study is intentionally open ended ― directed toward developing further inquiry rather than converging upon singular outcomes. The case is bound by the shared experiences of six students who attended a single arts-integrated elementary school during its first years of existence. The research strategy “investigates a contemporary phenomenon (the ‘case’) in depth and within a real-world context” (Yin, 2014, p. 16), privileging the participant’s voices and experiences. This study adopts characteristics of narrative inquiry based on the principle that “people are seen as composing lives that shape and are shaped by social and cultural narratives” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 43). Although the qualitative approach for this study is more formal than Clandinin and Connelly suggest for narrative inquiry, the author emphasizes the value of “experience as expressed in lived and told stories.” The author positions themselves alongside the students as a participant/witness/writer. Focus groups were conducted with all student participants and included one interview with each individual student and one interview with each student’s parent. Interviews were transcribed, analyzed and coded to interpret meaning and significance and identify themes.

Limitations of the Research:

This study does not strive to meet typical research criteria of reliability or transferability, but to form analytic generalizations of participants’ experiences within a broader context of school and life. This is a study about personal perspectives, and therefore only provides anecdotal evidence.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Concluding questions revise and extend the findings here: What is the effect of early learning in arts integration on adult engagements with the arts? How does arts integration influence students’ mindsets or attitudes about school? How does the interaction between confidence, community and communication in the context of schoolwide arts integration influence learning? In addition, longitudinal inquiry has the potential to provide insight into the lives of those who have experienced the outcomes as they continue to mature. As more studies are published, evidence may help to inform policy makers and administrations as they weigh the costs and benefits of schoolwide arts integration.