Jack Winans, who retired in June after 28 years as a drama and English teacher at Kearny High School, believes the education system has failed in the past 10 to 20 years.
A lively, pugnacious man who saw many of his high school students become professional actors, Winans finds that students today are not as prepared as those of several years ago to handle sophisticated assignments.
"I have heard teachers saying that they can't teach 'Julius Caesar' anymore," Winans complained. He calls that a cop-out, and says students would be able to handle the material if the teachers were willing to put the time and effort into teaching it. "When you have teachers saying this, the whole curriculum suffers."
Winans and others blame it on elementary schools.
"I think a lot of it is in the elementary and junior high schools," he said. "People come out and write 'a lot' as one word and nobody has told them any different."
Elementary school teachers are under pressure to be all things to their students--math, science, art and home economics teachers all rolled into one. The arts are often far down the list.
"Not every teacher is capable of teaching art and music," said San Diego school board member Ann Armstrong. "Some just don't feel comfortable sitting at a piano and singing."
At the same time, most educators agree that the elementary schools are the key to introducing the arts to children. It is the first opportunity to identify and encourage aptitude in the arts.
In addition, there are simply so many elementary schools that it is only natural that the bulk of the district's resources would go to boost their efforts.
"Because we have 110 elementary schools, the focus is more on elementary schools, and we neglect, to some degree, what is going on in the secondary schools," acknowledged Kay Wagner, the fine-arts coordinator for the city's schools.
As a result, the quality of art programs available at high schools and junior highs varies widely from school to school. Mira Mesa High, for example, has four art teachers, while other schools may be lucky to have one or two.
In the San Dieguito High School District, 80% of the graduates move on to college, so most of the art classes are oriented toward college preparation. Students can even take an advanced-placement art history course, which is accepted as elective credit in the University of California system.
Yet, next year that same district will probably drop one of only two music teachers serving the five schools in the district. According to Don Kemp, San Dieguito's assistant superintendent, there are not enough band students to support two teachers.
For the high schools, the fate of arts programs often becomes a numbers game because class enrollment is a common criterion for deciding the future, or at least the effectiveness, of a program.
Music is a frequent victim of the game. There are fewer students and fewer classes. One reason for the lower turnout for band classes: There are fewer programs at the elementary and junior high levels.
"It's rare for a 15-year-old kid to decide to take up the trombone," University City High Principal Mary McNaughton said.
Another problem for Winans was a falling enrollment that is plaguing Kearny along with many other urban schools. As Kearny's rolls decreased, it became harder and harder for him to find students willing to put time and energy into a drama production. More kids have after-school jobs, and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts snatches up some of the most dedicated students.
In the '70s, Winans' students did lunch-time productions besides full-blown performances of the classics, Shakespeare and Steinbeck. But, in his last few years, Winans didn't have enough students with the background to do such elaborate and complicated shows.
"The kids are still top-notch, but the numbers aren't there," he said.