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Behind the scenes: California's new arts education plans

By Karen D'Souza (Special to ONME News)

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Amid a national reckoning over the deepening achievement gaps caused by the pandemic, arts education may be one of the keys to boosting children’s engagement in school, research suggests. Like sports, the arts can spark the kind of excitement that makes students, and their families, look forward to coming to school. Both realms tap deeply into the primal impulse to play and learn.


“Children are already artists in many ways,” said Allison Gamlen, visual and performing arts coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education.“They already kind of know what to do. If you give a bunch of 6-year-olds musical instruments, they’re going to know what to do. They just can jam more than adults can.”


The need to ignite that innate creativity is why principals, superintendents and arts educators across the state are brainstorming new and expanded arts education plans in the wake of Proposition 28, which guarantees an annual funding stream for music and arts education that equals 1% of the state’s general fund spending on K-12 — roughly $1 billion this year. This game-changing legislation means that the arts can be more than a luxury enjoyed by the privileged few who can afford it. It can be a source of discovery and joy for all students.


“Encouraging students from an early age to explore their creative interests can set them up for a life that recognizes the arts as an essential part of life, both as a means of expression and of understanding the world,” said Rush Rehm, professor of drama and classics at Stanford. “Education should provide the basic skills one needs to survive in an imperfect world. But living is more than surviving, and for that reason funding the arts makes good, common sense. That is, if one has any hope of making the world a little less imperfect.”


Bolstered by this infusion of arts funding, which is currently expected to arrive late this fall, some schools are launching something big in the 2023-24 school year while others are planning ahead and setting the stage for new programs. Schools can accumulate funds over three years toward a bigger goal. Other principals, particularly those who have long championed the power of the arts to transform children’s lives, are eager to raise the curtain on new programs.


Take Chris Read, the principal of San Pablo’s E.M. Downer Elementary School. He’s a true believer in arts education as a tool to spark student engagement. That’s why he’s spending money out of his tight budget to pay roughly half the cost of a full-time arts teacher and using his Proposition 28 allotment to pick up the other half of the tab. Over the years, he has come to see the pivotal role arts education can play in a student’s personal development, a view buttressed by exhaustive research.


“The impact will be great within a number of areas,” Read said. “Mainly with skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, social-emotional learning, physical or emotional trauma and with enhancing social skills. We have tried to introduce or give different art experiences or opportunities in all the art disciplines.”


In fact, it’s far more important to him that his students have exposure to the arts at large than any particular craft or discipline. Given the state’s teacher shortage, which worsened during the pandemic, he is not pursuing an artist whose specific expertise might speak to his students, instead searching high and low for the right individual, the arts educator whose personality and character best clicks with his school.


“We are wanting to offer the position to the best candidate in whatever medium they are best at,” Read said. “We’d rather have the best possible candidate to support our learners because we believe all of the arts are important.”


The readiness is all, as Shakespeare put it. Planning ahead may be the key to making the most of the funds on the table, experts say. After decades of cutting and scrimping, arts educators finally have money to spend. It should be noted, however, that many arts advocates feel the California Department of Education, which is administering the program, has yet to provide sufficient guidance regarding the rules of implementation, perhaps due to lack of staff.


“It’s awesome and amazing, and we need it so badly,” Gamlen said. “There is solid arts funding coming for the first time that I can remember. Arts programs and electives are often the first thing on the cutting board, although they’re so crucial to student well-being.”

Her advice to schools is to first take the temperature of their community to see what parents, students and teachers are most passionate about, whether it’s high-tech animation or ancient Indian dance, and then dig in with serious planning.


“I do hope that parents and community members can join in and share their voices and tell schools what they would like to see,” Gamlen said. “We’re trying to encourage districts to go slow and have a plan. Have a one-year, five-year, 10-year plan. This money is coming in perpetuity.”


Some schools are going all in with a single artistic discipline that resonates most deeply with their students. The Pacifica school district, for example, plans to strike up the band, using Proposition 28 funds to have music embedded throughout the K-8 curriculum, she said.


“It’s a sequential music program,” Gamlen said. “Kids will finish second grade and they’ll know how to do X, Y and Z. And their third grade music teacher will know that and can take them further. I appreciate that they are going deep with one art form.”


Fillmore Rydeen notes that Oakland Unified already has a robust arts program, including music and dance, so that makes it more complicated to hammer out a plan than a school that previously had no arts at all. He is advising principals to begin planning but cautions against moving too hastily.


“There are a lot of different circumstances the principal may want to think about when they’re doing this,” he said. “What do you have currently? What would you like to add to it? Where does it make sense to add, and does that addition actually give more kids art?”

With only about 5,000 credentialed arts teachers in the state and a need for roughly 15,000, some warn of a coming arts teacher shortage. While some schools may tap working artists, as opposed to credentialed arts teachers, to flesh out their new programs, some say that may also create complications. For example, working artists may come into the classroom to teach their expertise, say, script writing or sculpture, as classified staff, but the classroom teacher also needs to be present.


“Where are we going to get the people to fill these positions, and if we fill the positions with unqualified people, how do we support them?” Rydeen said. “If you have no teaching credential, no teaching experience, but we put you in front of a classroom, sometimes it works out. But oftentimes folks struggle.”


By contrast, San Diego Unified, which also already has a vibrant arts education program, is planning to hire enough teachers to expand its arts program in five different genres: dance, music, theater, visual art and media arts.


“The new funding will be transformative because we are expanding all five programs,” said Anne Fennell, K-12 music program manager for San Diego Unified, “so that more students can have the arts as well as meeting the students’ needs in the arts classes that they want to study.”


Like a work of art, experts say it may well take time to craft and then fine-tune an arts ed plan.


“The classes should reflect what the students want and what the families want,” said Gamlen, “and what they want might be really different from what the school principals want.”


It’s also likely that the needs and wants of the student body will evolve over time. One cohort of students may be drawn to digital arts, another to dance. That’s why experts say most arts ed plans will be a moving target.


The therapeutic power of movement is one thing Gamlen hopes educators will consider as they explore their options in arts education. Sitting still for most of the day is trying for many children —particularly in the post-pandemic era. After months of online studies during the shutdown, many students struggle to focus in in-person school, and physical activity may be a balm for the anxious ones.


“Dance might feel extra to some administrators, but it’s such a great way to teach musicality and rhythm, and it can also be really culturally relevant to students,” Gamlen said. “It’s a way to teach history, and it’s very physical. Students with disabilities and English language learners can access dance in a different way than some of their other classes that might be much more verbal or text dependent.”


Many arts advocates suggest that the myriad challenges of launching a new program will almost certainly pay off in higher student engagement, which may be critical to boosting lackluster pandemic recovery efforts.


The restorative nature of the arts — giving children permission to express themselves against the backdrop of the alarming youth mental health crisis — may help spark joy in a generation traumatized by the stress and strain of the last few years.


“Joy is fundamental to the learning process,” said Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project, an advocacy/research organization based at Arizona State University. “First, it’s critical for establishing intrinsic motivation for learning and associating positive feelings with school. Second, it’s important for mental health. Kids have been through a lot. Kids are still going through a lot. It is important for kids to feel joy in school because they are humans, and they deserve to feel joy in a place where they are spending much of their waking hours, like we all do.”

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