Group brings arts to class

DOWNTOWN — The Glendale Unified School District does not currently have a coordinated arts education program for elementary school students, but a group of parents, teachers and administrators has been working to change that as part of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s Arts for All program.

Arts for All, which released a report Wednesday showing improvements in countywide arts instruction, was established in 2003 with the goal of advising school districts on making plans for broad arts programs that could be funded by internal and external resources, said Ayanna Higgins, director of arts education for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

The program pays for coaches to guide districts toward making long-term plans for arts classes and helps educators connect with helpful grants, Higgins said.

Burbank Unified joined the program in 2004. The Glendale Unified School District became an Arts for All participant this year and held two meetings in January to start the process of developing a long-term plan for the arts, said Joan Shoff, the district’s visual and performing arts coordinator.

Although the report showed jumps in arts personnel countywide and more districts adopting arts-related policies, it also showed a drop in funding from school districts for the programs.

Just 3% of the county’s 81 school districts spent 5% or more of their general funds for arts education in 2008, down from 15% in 2005, according to the report.

Burbank Unified spent less than 2% of its general fund on arts programs and Glendale Unified spent less than 5%, the report said.

The commission has attributed the sharp decrease to more accurate reporting from districts, Higgins said, adding that overall, 98% of the districts said they used some funds from their general budgets to support the arts.

But many districts are using state grants instead of money from their own budgets to support visual arts, music and performing arts classes, Higgins said.

With more districts relying on restricted state grants, known as categorical programs, to fund classes, recent gains in arts education could be wiped out if provisions included in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2009-10 budget proposal are approved.

Schwarzenegger proposed a net cut of about $2 billion from educational funding, but would also allow educators to use funds currently restricted for categorical programs to help cover budget shortfalls caused by the cuts.

The flexibility would give districts the freedom to do away with grant-funded positions, like some visual and performing arts coordinators, or trim programs, like art, music and physical education, to help meet their other obligations.

But Higgins felt the majority of school districts in the county would continue to support the arts, especially after 25 of the 28 districts currently participating in Arts for All have chosen to recommit to the program next year, she said.

“There are only three of our districts that have frozen funds [for arts], but they have frozen funds across the board,” she said.

Members of the Burbank and Glendale unified school boards have expressed the desire to maintain funding for arts programs, although they have acknowledged that no district expense would be immune to cuts.

A change to Burbank Unified’s support of its arts program, which has been growing with its involvement in Arts for All, could be damaging, said Peggy Flynn, the district’s visual and performing arts coordinator.

“We’d lose more than we’d gain by doing away with those programs,” Flynn said, explaining that Arts for All representatives help direct educators to apply for grants that would otherwise go unnoticed. “We’d lose access to the Arts for All opportunities for funding. We wouldn’t have somebody to take advantage of the opportunities that are in our own community.”

A coach, provided by the Arts for All program, has guided Burbank Unified in developing a broad plan for arts instruction over the last six years, Flynn said.

Burbank Unified’s arts programs had been largely slashed from the district’s budget since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which cut local property taxes by 57%, drastically limiting revenues available to schools and governments, she said.

Individual schools developed their own solutions for arts education after the cuts, using donations from parents and local businesses to fund weekly painting or music lessons, she said.

But the quality and scope of instruction varied by school, she said. Students in schools with active parents who raised funds for arts classes were more likely to participate in activities like drawing, acting or music, she said.

“We had schools that had a lot of art experiences for their kids, a lot of after-school programs, and then we’ve had schools that really had nothing,” Flynn said.

Officials have been able to turn things around with the help of the Arts for All program, she said. The Burbank Unified Board of Education created Flynn’s post, giving her the task of surveying each school to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses in arts education.

She was also able to pursue specific grants with the help of Arts for All, allowing her to pay for supplemental music programs at schools where students had not had as much exposure to the art form, and to fund a year-long visual arts workshop for teachers at another school, organized through the J. Paul Getty Foundation, she said.

“Part of my balancing act has been to look at what’s needed at each of the sites and try to provide what’s needed to bring it up,” Flynn said.

Administrators in Glendale Unified are hoping the same access to grants and training programs that Arts for All provides will help add to recent efforts to develop its elementary school arts and music programs, Shoff said.

Elementary schools in Glendale Unified used a similar approach to that of Burbank’s schools before that district’s programs became more standardized, Shoff said.

That piecemeal, independent approach to arts education not only resulted in skewed proportions of music or arts lessons, but also did not follow an educational approach supported by California standards, Flynn said.

Students might have been learning how to paint or sing, but not in a progressive approach that focused on building skills, she said.

“If you don’t understand line and form, chances are when you get into fifth grade and the teacher wants you to do something that focuses on composition, you’re not going to be ready for it,” she said.

 ZAIN SHAUK covers education. He may be reached at (818) 637-3238 or by e-mail at

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