Parents push art at local schools

PTAs work to promote programs and weave art into the culture and curriculum of the schools.Alexandra Helfrich has always been a creative person, so when she sent her child to a school arts camp during the summer at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, she made a few suggestions.

She had no idea what she was getting herself into.

"A very wise person once said, 'Don't make a complaint unless you're ready to do something about it,'" Helfrich said.

Before she knew what had happened, Helfrich assumed a roll that many parents are playing across the district -- creating what they call an "arts revolution" in the elementary schools.

Parents spend countless hours raising money, writing grant proposals, and even teaching classes themselves. Many estimate they spend 20 hours each week organizing classes, fundraisers and events.

The money they raise goes toward paying art teachers, bringing in outside art programs, and organizing special arts days.

"There's passion for the arts inside each one of these mothers," said Mary Cutone, a parent at Bret Harte Elementary School. "And I could say ... without a doubt that inside each one of these artistic mothers is an advocate. So rather than complain and whine or accept, I think all of us in one from or another began ... doing things."

Much of this was going on within each school, Helfrich said, with little awareness of what other parents at other schools were involved in.

In the past year, things have changed -- parents have started collaborating and the movement has been gaining momentum, she said.

"First of all, we have the council-level events," she said.

The events, organized by Karen Broderick, a parent at Ralph Emerson Elementary School, bring parents from across the district together to learn from each other.

Parents have keyed each other in to grants like those given by the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, free day trips to the Getty Center, and other ways to get the rest of the school involved.

Many schools, however, do not have the funds to support the same caliber of programs, explained Suzanne Weerts, a parent at McKinley Elementary School, who helped start the McKinley Arts Project.

The Music Center grant alone requires the school raise $5,000.

"Not everyone has the money," she said.

The success of each arts program depends wholly on the success of school fundraisers and how passionate parents are about the arts, said Connie Nassius, a parent at George Washington Elementary School, and the level of programming is not consistent throughout the district.

"It depends on what parents are there at the time," she said. "Once we get all this off the ground, our children will be in middle school."

School PTAs also rotate, so one parent is in charge of arts programming for just two years at a time.

In a number of schools, teachers have started to adopt the arts programs for themselves -- the work parents have been doing to promote the arts has started weaving itself into the culture of the schools.

"We have a new principal who is really supportive of the arts," Helfrich explained. "And somehow the teachers have really started to do so much more -- it's really energized everybody."

Other parents are hoping the district's fledgling Arts for All program will take the burden off of their shoulders. This program, they hope, will give all students at all the schools the opportunity to pursue the arts.

"Everybody is finally getting that it's important to have every student in every grade getting art," said Alexis Sheehy, deputy superintendent for the district. "We've already started the curriculum writing."

Once a program is created, Helfrich believes it will get easier for the school to solicit grant money and other funds.

"They are moving on this," Helfrich said. "They're doing it. We need to get to the point where our job is to go back and to enrich and support the arts, rather than supplying it."

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