This story originally published on KCET Artbound.
A mural depicting the history of Boyle Heights greets parents dropping off their children at my son’s elementary school. Inside, a large cartoon bee emblazoned on a handball court reminds students to “be respectful and be responsible.”
Situated on the emerging Arts District, with a theater, gallery, music school all within walking distance, the school’s murals and surrounding vibrant arts community are no where to be seen inside the classroom. The dearth of arts education mainly due to budget cuts and testing mandates disproportionately affect low-income schools in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights.
The irony was never lost on me: arts needy school in an arts-rich hood. When my son began kindergarten this fall, I was determined to change that. As the advocacy manager for Arts for LA, I am tasked with connecting with or creating networks of arts supporters and building capacity to advocate for the arts. My advocacy work comprises two phases: building support and mobilizing support.
At the first parent leadership meeting I attended, the difference between school district level arts advocacy (my job) and school site level arts advocacy was obvious: time frame. District advocacy has a long view; school site advocacy has an immediate view. District advocacy aims to build the infrastructure to secure arts education for the long term, school site advocacy aims to bring programs now. Both are essential to ensure equitable access to the arts.
As I sat at the table for the first parent leadership meeting with the principal, a couple of teachers and parents, my head full of questions, suggestions, and facts ”” I wondered how exactly do I increase access to the arts here, now? Demanding new programs won’t get me far (resources are scarce). I can’t write a big check.
So, that day my arts advocacy consisted of asking about the current programs, discretionary funds and most importantly letting the group know I want to help bring in more arts. The school leaders were gracious and expressed a willingness to explore opportunities and avenues with me. After the meeting I felt very optimistic and as I walked out of the campus with my son in tow this feeling of ownership and responsibility for this school came over me.
The principal and I met one on one after a parent meeting and discussed in detail the programs in place and his vision for the school. I was very surprised and happy to hear about the amount of arts programs offered at the school. The elementary school is part of an arts cadre of L.A. Unified School District elementary schools that has staff committed to bringing in more arts programs. As a result, dance, choir, visual arts and theater are offered to some grades levels. The teachers choose and sign up their class.
I was very happy but of course not completely satisfied – my goal is all the arts all students. I asked the principal, new to the school and community, what he would like to see and how I could be of help. He told me, he wanted the school to be better connected to the community. Thus my new objective: find a meaningful way to connect the arts community with the school.
LAUSD, above average in regards to its commitment and offering of elementary arts education programs, adopted an updated Arts Education plan in 2011 and a resolution to make arts “core curriculum” this year.
Faced with several years of devastating cuts (76 percent of its total budget in five years) the respectable LAUSD elementary arts program provides some students with music and one other art form (chosen by the school site). But there is much room for improvement; 53 percent of more than 272,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade will not receive any arts instruction in elementary school.
The long game of policy advocacy, with snail like change ”” vital as it is ”” does not address the immediate concern: What about the 53 percent of kids who are not receiving a complete education right now?
Kids can’t wait years for policy objectives. They need all the benefits the arts bring immediately. The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan states, “Education in the arts is more important than ever.” A student learning an art form correlates with higher attendance, better test scores and most importantly improved attitudes about themselves and their future. The arts improve school climate and teach critical skills requiring for the 21st century workforce: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
Not all of us are hard-wired the same. Some of us struggle to learn the “conventional” way, and some of us (I would argue most of us) need to move, explore, and interact to fully grasp a concept. Using your entire brain to learn a new concept makes it easier to understand and remember.
As a Boyle Heights kid who learned English in elementary school, I understand the difference between learning the language through workbooks and learning it through school plays. The former requires memorization, the latter mastery. And that makes all the difference. We need to move away from an industrial education model focused on standardization and tests to an education model built for the future: We don’t need people who can assemble iPods. We need people who can imagine and create the next one.
Advocacy for arts education is advocacy for a complete 21st century education. When students within the same county receive vastly different education resources and opportunities it becomes a matter of equity. Elementary schools in L.A. County range from providing zero elementary arts education to providing music, visual arts and theater to every single student throughout the year.
The arts have not completely disappeared from schools thanks to active parents, passionate artists, caring non-profits, visionary government leaders and wily school staff. But as schools have been asked to do more and more with less, many arts supporters have become the funding stream for arts education in schools. Nonprofit arts organizations provide their education services below the actual cost (using grants and other private dollars to make up the differences). Individual artists sometimes volunteer their time to teach. Parents raise funds to bring in programs.
All of this work, while highly commendable and needed, suffers from a lack of sustainability and equity. Not all parents can write checks to fund the arts. Arts organizations cannot possibly sustain their work in schools without continued fundraising, nor can they serve all students. And individual artists, trained experts in their field, need to get paid ”” artists are the only professionals often expected and sometimes willing to work for free.
The nation as a whole struggles with access to arts education. According to the Fast Response Survey System by the National Center for Education Statistics, “in 2009-2010, 1.3 million elementary students received no music instruction and 3.9 million received no visual arts instruction…. Numbers for dance and drama instruction are even worse.” The surveyed showed high-poverty schools “are more than twice as likely to have no access to a music or arts class.”
Trying to be an involved parent is difficult. Meetings begin in the middle of the day (2:30 right after school) and everything understandably requires consensus and process. The meetings can be boring and arduous but schools need all the help they can get. Students are not receiving an incomplete education because of nefarious reasons. Never have I met a school administrator nor principal who does not value arts education or wants their students to have access to it.
The reason for a lack of access usually centers on funding, priorities and time. When they tell me, “We would love to but do not have the resources.” They are not lying. I view my job as a parent and arts supporter centered on informing and providing a new perspective: the arts as a tool to learn critical skills and a vehicle to teach other subject matters.
I have seen firsthand arts education programs increase in the recession through partnerships, policy, advocacy and creativity at the school district level and school site level. At the district level, the L.A. County Arts for All initiative builds partnerships, creates policy and plans, and advocates to school district leadership. Arts for LA continues this work by connecting with or developing community wide advocacy efforts for the arts.
At the school site level the same principles apply: schools can develop local partnerships to bring in arts (e.g. reaching out to a local theater to discuss opportunities for a field trip or bringing in a performance or workshop). Policy can be affected through participation in the School Site Council (a decision making council that revises and recommends annually the Single Plan for Student Achievement including proposed expenditures of funds allocated to school that receive categorical funding). Advocacy raises awareness of the needs and opportunities that exist.
Every morning and afternoon, I walk my son to and from school. I always admire the mark the local artists have made on the school walls. Artists live here, artists have worked here, artists have children here ”” how do we keep them here? I want to effectively break down barriers, to let the community arts come in. I will be doing that one parent meeting at a time.
Abe Flores is a Boyle Heights resident and advocacy field manager for Arts for LA, an arts education advocacy organization, where he leads advocacy workshops to create networks of arts advocates in L.A. County.