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Learning Matters: Arts, technical education can play key roles in a student's future

Former Glendale Unified Supt. Jim Brown arrived in Glendale in 1996 in a yellow Volkswagen van with a bumper sticker proclaiming, “Arts are fundamental.”

I think there was some wishful thinking in that sticker — like the van itself, a statement of his core principles with a touch of wanderlust.

But those of us who worked with Brown, in PTA or on staff, saw how arts and books informed his work in our district.

I’m a wishful thinker, too, particularly when it comes to expanding arts and career technical education — not at the expense of core subjects such as English, math and science, but to enrich them.

Some students will catch on to reading as they sing words from a sheet of music. Others will finally understand a math concept when they must use it to build a robot or a bridge. We’ve seen aspiring filmmakers improve their writing skills as they practice storyboarding.

Of course, I believe the arts have intrinsic value, too, in addition to their positive effect on academic proficiencies.

Our school district has a variety of strong arts and technology programs, and it aims for more. But as the cast of district and school site administrators changes year by year, and as budget priorities shift, I worry that two key lessons about teaching these “beyond the core” classes may be lost: the lessons about the people who do the teaching and the ones who support them.

First, expertise matters. On a number of occasions, using one-time funding from grants or other non-general fund sources, the district has hired experts to “train the trainers.”

The experts — dancers or theater companies, for instance — are brought in to lead classes for students, with the expectation that multisubject elementary classroom teachers will observe the visiting artists’ techniques and provide similar lessons in ensuing years.

Problem is, those following-year lessons don’t happen as planned. Teachers change grade levels or schools, or, not having developed the skills and confidence of the experts, they understandably stick to what they know.

Dance taught by a dancer impresses children and infuses them with a sense of rhythm and pattern in a way most of us wouldn’t… even if we like to dance.

Train-the-trainer models can work well in subjects where teachers have a base level of experience — such as deescalating conflicts or facilitating student discussions — but their benefits frequently lapse in subjects such as performing arts.

Relationships matter, too. Developing effective college and career pathways in arts, technology, or any other subject is not easy.

Designing these mutually approved sequences of courses and experience leading to certification, degrees and eventual employment requires ongoing collaboration among K-12 and college districts, industry and workforce representatives. Career pathways are not formed outside a relationship of familiarity and trust.

The majority of our locally developed career-education programs have come about thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Glendale Community College’s dean of workforce development, Jan Swinton.

The results of her two decades and more of collaboration include the Glendale Fire Academy, created and sustained in partnership with the Glendale Fire Department; the Power Academy, developed to help supply Glendale Water and Power and other utilities with trained Smart Meter installers; a program to certify parolees to repair heating and air-conditioning units; a variety of nursing programs to support our hospitals; and, most recently, the Uniquely Abled Academy that trains individuals on the autism spectrum for employment as computer numerically controlled machine operators.

Swinton and her colleagues, such as Scott Rubke and Emma Sanchez, understand not only the arcane requirements of government funding but the needs of partner agencies, students and employees as well as employers.

When companies need new pools of employees, or when school districts or other agencies need a partner to build a career pathway, they know they can find a knowledgeable and effective partner at Glendale Community College.

Glendale Unified’s career education department has grown in the last couple of years, with the addition of a dedicated career pathway counselor, a district coordinator and, this year, a teacher on special assignment.

Deb Rinder has been the most recent district-level administrator for career-technical education, a responsibility she took on alongside her overall responsibility for secondary instruction and management of the Local Control and Accountability Plan efforts.

But news came recently that her responsibilities are shifting to special education, and her successor has not been announced.

I can’t remember the last time Glendale Unified had a dedicated district arts coordinator who didn’t have several other assignments pending.

Currently, a company wishing to partner in arts education would have a hard time finding a good link on the district website.

Arts and technical education are fundamental to our children’s and grandchildren’s future. I’ll keep on with my wishful thinking.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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