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L.A. Unified unveils plan to bring arts into academics

After five years of deep budget cuts in arts education, L.A. Unified is poised to inject music, dance, visual arts and theater into core academic subjects under a five-year plan unveiled Thursday.

The Arts Education and Creative Cultural Network Plan will restore at least $13.5 million to arts education by 2017, bringing funding levels back to the $32 million spent five years ago. The money will be used to rehire elementary arts teachers, provide schools with needed supplies and train teachers on how to incorporate the arts into math, science, English and social studies.

A physics teacher might use dance to illustrate the laws of motion, for instance. Or a history teacher could ask children to act out the California Gold Rush using tableau. In one recent training of L.A. Unified teachers, instructors created lesson plans for multiplication using the concentric circle art of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky.

“I believe our creativity and critical thinking are going to rise and our arts are going to reach many, many more people,” said Steven McCarthy, who heads the district’s arts education branch.

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A 2011 report by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities cited more than a decade of studies that consistently found that arts education boosted student achievement, motivation and attendance. One 2009 study found that low-income students who had been involved in the arts were more likely than their uninvolved peers to have attended and done well in college, to have found good jobs, volunteered and voted.

“It’s been proven over and over again that just learning facts on their own doesn’t always work,” said Carol Koepenick, a traveling theater arts elementary teacher who participated in the recent training. “When you put it in the context of something they’re interested in -- whether music or dance -- then the student develops a firmer understanding of what they’re learning.”

Some teachers, however, are wary of the new plan. Scott Mandel, a Pacoima Middle School teacher who oversees the musical theater department, said integrating arts and academics was a “fantastic” idea. But it would likely take time from teaching all of the concepts students are tested on -- and that, in turn, could jeopardize teachers who are now being evaluated on the growth of those test scores, he said.

He said a new district mandate for double classes in math and English for middle school students struggling in those subjects would make it even more difficult to squeeze in time for art.

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“You can’t ask teachers to put arts in the curriculum and then hold them accountable for the things they leave out,” Mandel said.

The plan was crafted to carry out a school board resolution passed in October to restore arts education. In the last five years, the district has slashed the arts budget by 41%, cut traveling elementary arts teachers to 216 from 335 in 2008 and now allots only 2% of elementary school learning time to arts.

McCarthy said that arts funding would be boosted by at least 10% for the upcoming school year and that some traveling elementary arts teachers would be rehired.

In addition, the nonprofit Los Angeles Fund for Public Education last week announced a three-year, $750,000 grant to train teachers in how to integrate the arts in academic subjects. The Music Center received the first grant of $150,000 to train 20 teachers at five L.A. middle schools: Sun Valley, San Fernando, Adams, Berendo and South Gate.

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The plan also calls on school officials to forge a coalition with the region’s arts and cultural institutions to aid in the restoration effort.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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