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Overcoming a sour note

Two pilot programs are reviving the arts in our public schools

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Tourists always seem to marvel at San Luis Obispo’s beauty. Sometimes they remark on the cultural vibrancy, the myriad plays, concerts, exhibits, and performance groups. Nobody comments on the fact that while adults may be living in a cultural paradise, their children subsist on the crumbs of former after school and arts programs. While adults visit the PAC, the Clark Center, the SLO Little Theatre, or buy tickets to see the Pacific Repertory Opera or the SLO Symphony, their children are receiving less exposure to the arts than those in every other state in the country, less even than most other counties in California. Even within SLO County, the quality of art instruction differs from district to district and from school to school. 
 

PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
# As school districts across the county fall victim to declining enrollment, causing some districts to consider closing entire schools, and various state grants to dry up, leaving the skeletons of former art programs in their stead, each district has chosen to respond to the budget crises in a different way. Some have completely eliminated arts programs from their schools; others are pursuing alternative sources of funding. Most have identified someone to blame—the school district, individual schools, the state, teachers, parents, society at large, in what might be a Guinness record-setting game of hot potato. Despite the fact that everybody seems to agree that a well-rounded education has to be arts inclusive, nobody knows how, or if, that is even possible. Should parents who value the arts be responsible for purchasing private lessons for their children? And which organizations, public and private, are trying to save the county’s educational art programs?

Everyday Etudes
 
As most people attempt to distance themselves from responsibility for art programs in schools, a local organization with no technical affiliation with the public school system chose to step into the breach and advocate music education programs. The San Luis Obispo Symphony, which has offered programs like Free Dress Rehearsal and the Symphony Music Van for over a decade, is now spearheading a music education program called Everyday Etudes.
 
“Music is a necessary component of a well-rounded education,� says Symphony Music Education Director Jaime Lewis. “More than that, it’s necessary for all humans. It’s beautiful. It inspires.� And if music programs in schools get the boot, how can arts programs like the symphony exist in an artless vacuum? Where will future audiences come from if young people do not learn enough about music to develop a full appreciation of it?
 
When the SLO Symphony first pitched Everyday Etudes to San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) administrators, four elementary schools expressed interest in implementing the program, but the symphony could acquire funding for only one. They held a lottery to determine which school would receive the funding, and in the fall of 2005 C.L. Smith Elementary began their pilot year for the Everyday Etudes program, exposing an estimated 315 students from kindergarten through sixth grade to classical music every day. 
 

PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
# Prior to implementing Everyday Etudes, C.L. Smith’s music education program consisted of half an hour of instruction once a week for students between fourth and sixth grades. Qualified music specialists offered instruction, but only to specific grades. “The music specialists do a great job, but they have had extraordinary limitations placed on them,� says Lewis. “They are told to meet state music content standards, but they are not given the time or the funding to do so.� The school district also recently began a music-infusion program, in which teachers shadow music specialists as they offer instruction. At the conclusion of the academic year, teachers are expected to replace the specialists. Though this program clearly marks an effort towards offering improved music education, the program’s sustainability is questionable.
 
Everyday Etudes is a program that includes daily instruction in addition to several special events throughout the school year. The everyday portion is called the Brummitt-Taylor Music Listening Program. The program provides schools with packets of scripts and CDs spanning five years of classical music instruction. Every day instructors read from a script providing very brief information about a particular composer’s life and work before the class listens for five minutes to a CD of one of the composer’s pieces. Each week is dedicated to a different piece; each day the script directs student focus to a different element of the composition. The program introduces students to a variety of different composers such as Britten, Mussorgsky, Bach and Vivaldi. “It’s consistent, it’s everyday, and it adheres to and meets a good number of the California content standards for music,� says Lewis.
 
Besides the fact that the program requires only five minutes each day, educators require no special musical training in order to lead the class. Instructors participate in an orientation at the beginning of the year and the symphony provides a dedicated liaison to answer questions and resolve problems.
 
In addition to the music listening program, the Symphony has immersed C.L. Smith in a variety of other events that correlate with what students learn when listening to classical music. Over the course of the last academic year a string quartet visited the school and the Music Van visited the third grade students, giving them a first-hand look at the instruments they had been listening to all year. One of the symphony’s largest endeavors was hosting a children’s concert for the entire school at the PAC.
 
What does it cost to provide 315 students with five minutes of classical music each day? The answer differs, depending on the number of years of the program. For C.L. Smith’s pilot year, the symphony paid $10,000. Subsequent years cost only $5,000, primarily because the materials are purchased the first year. Once the initial investment is made, the scripts and CDs can be re-used until the materials wear out. “It adds up to be $20,000 for three years for one school,� Lewis says. “That’s shocking at first until you realize that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what San Luis Coastal is paying for their music program as it is. And it’s not all that much considering that students are actually arguing about whom they like better, Bach or Vivaldi. I am tickled if one of them hates Mozart and can tell me why.�
 
As C.L. Smith’s pilot year draws to a close, everyone seems pleased with the impact it has had on the students and the ease with which it was implemented. “Before it started I was concerned because we’re not trained to teach music,â€? says third grade teacher Kathleen Settle, who also worried that the program would overstep its allotted time. Since then, she has created a portfolio of pictures of composers to provide her students with visual aids. “That took a little extra time, but that was a voluntary move on my part,â€? Settle admits. “The program itself is a joy. Some of the children would never have had this kind of musical exposure. It adds a new dimension to their education.â€? And the program has inspired more than dialogue. Instructor Stephanie Sill says that two of her third-grade students began taking music lessons out of a desire to play the music they hear each day. 
 
With C.L. Smith’s pilot year receiving glowing reviews, the symphony is in the process of expanding the program to other elementary schools. Budgeting challenges aside, the symphony hopes to expand the program to three new schools next year while maintaining C.L. Smith’s participation. The symphony ultimately plans to expand the program across the entire county but next year they will continue to focus on elementary schools in the SLCUSD, primarily because the district is already familiar with the program and cultivating a relationship with a new district will take time. Despite the fact that the symphony has not yet been able to confirm a budget with the district, they plan to proceed with Everyday Etudes orientations for three new schools as soon as school gets out. They have also created a five-minute promotional video based on C.L. Smith’s pilot year, which they hope will help generate both support and funding for the program’s expansion.
 
Though SLCUSD expressed interest in expanding Everyday Etudes, their original plan for financing was to suggest that the symphony apply for a corporate grant. Lewis put together a proposal for a $20,000 grant, a long shot that made her concerned that the temporary funding source decreased the program’s sustainability and encouraged the school district to reject accountability for the program. Ultimately, the district pledged $10,000 in funding and each of the four schools would pay $2,5000 if the symphony received the $20,000 grant. The symphony was informed that they would receive final say on the grant in July, despite the fact that the school district meets to finalize budget decisions on June 20. How the school district planned to budget for the etudes program with a $20,000 question mark hanging over its head was difficult to say, and the symphony desperately needed an alternative budget in the likely event that the grant fell through. 
 
For several months uncertainty about the status of the symphony’s grant application made the entire project’s future questionable. The school district refused to consider what would happen if the grant didn’t come through. Though Lewis realized that receiving the grant would be an ideal short-term fix, she believed that not receiving the grant would force the school district and the community to take a more active role in the program’s future and, hopefully, to develop a greater sense of accountability towards all arts programs in the educational system.
 
Fortunately, at the end of April the symphony received advance notice that they did not receive the grant. The district immediately confirmed its commitment to the program, and the symphony hopes to progress with program expansion. “I’m not discouraged in the least by this,â€? says Lewis. “We’re meeting and trying to figure out what will happen now.â€? According to Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Mary Matakovich, the district is currently reviewing its budget with the intention of making Everyday Etudes financially feasible. However, as of yet no final budget decisions, or guarantees, have been made. 
 
PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
# But lack of funding is not the problem as much as the fact that the community seems unwilling to make an investment in the future of music. In the past five years funding for music education in SLO County has decreased 75%, trailed only by a 25% budget cut in physical education. “What I find so bizarre is 95% of people think that music is a critical part of a well-rounded education, and I don’t understand why the decision-makers aren’t taking this into account,� says Lewis. “Is it because we’re not scary enough as advocates? Maybe we should stop filling the need on our own as an arts organization and start expecting the school system to step in and educate.� According to the No Child Left Behind Act, students are supposed to be tested in all subjects, including music, which hasn’t been happening. If music were an element of budget-determining state testing, it’s probable that it would receive more funding and more class time. But until then, most educators feel that their hands are tied. “Parents expect you to teach their kids to read and do math,� says Settle.
 
Whatever the challenges of providing a well-rounded education with decreasing funds, other districts and states seem to have struck a solution, or at least a better compromise. Out of California’s 58 counties, San Luis Obispo ranks 54th for retention and music education enrollment. Worse still, California pays the least for music education per child of any other state. “We are 54th out of all these counties in the worst state in the entire county and we talk about how vibrant our cultural landscape is here and people don’t even realize that we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not teaching our kids music,� says Lewis.

The Atascadero Fine Arts Academy
 
Against this background of battles to retain a basic music program amidst decreased state funding, the Atascadero Unified School District (AUSD) has somehow managed to create a school dedicated to providing a complete education in the arts. The Atascadero Fine Arts Academy (FAA) was founded in 2000, under the direction of Assistant Superintendent Kathy Hannemann, after a committee spent two years developing a model for an art-focused elementary school. “We’re the only fine-arts based school in the county,� says Principal Melissa Bresnahan. “We have a special curriculum that focuses not just on academics but on all the arts as well.�
 
Spurred on by an outpouring of support from the community, in the last six years the FAA has nearly doubled its enrollment and is expecting this trend to continue over the next three years. “We started with about 126 students and next fall our enrollment will be up to 250,� says Bresnahan. “The district’s numbers are declining, but the Fine Arts Academy is growing.� Administrators plan to cap out enrollment in three years with 320 students. Eager parents are allowed to place their children on a waitlist as early as kindergarten and many do resulting in a scenario last year in which125 students applied to fill 64 spots available for incoming fourth graders.
 
“You don’t have to audition to get into the school,� says Bresnahan. “We want to offer art instruction to as many students as we can. For some, art is already their life, but some students need to find an alternative to education that meets their needs more.� As part of its policy of inclusion, the school welcomes students from other districts and all corners of the county; currently an estimated 20 percent of the students live in another district.
 
At FAA the academic day is divided in half. During the morning (8:15 to noon), students receive instruction in core academic subjects like English, math and science. “What we have to do here is a faster-paced, condensed version of these subjects, but we teach the same textbooks and the same basic curriculum,� explains Bresnahan.
 
After lunch, instruction transitions to the arts with two elective classes, running from 12:45 to 2:50. This year’s elective classes include band, chorus, dance, drama, drums (primarily African and Latin rhythm), strings, and various visual arts classes. Fourth-graders take classes that offer an overview of many different art forms, in order to prepare them for later years when they choose their own electives. Lesson plans for art electives are derived from Visual and Performing Arts Framework standards and students receive one hour of instruction twice a week for classes. 
 
Because FAA identifies itself as an alternative educational experience, instructors believe that providing students with a well-rounded education is only half the battle. How students learn is also an important element of the educational process. Instructors make an effort to bring art to life by focusing on creating or performing, rather than memorizing artists and dates. “They get a little bit of history, but they’re focused on actually doing art,� explains Bresnahan. “They’re not so much learning about Van Gogh as they’re learning color theory and shading and painting techniques.�
 
Students in dance classes learn a smattering of basic dance genres such as jazz, ballet, and hip-hop, and how to choreograph their own pieces, enabling them to pursue their new interest later in life, either as a career or a hobby. Instructors also use field trips whenever possible. Students don’t receive the same degree of intensive training as they would at Juilliard, but the school’s purpose is not to train precocious stars; its goal is to provide the average middle school student with the well-rounded education that many public schools neglect.
 
But an arts-inclusive education doesn’t come cheap, and FAA has been forced to get creative when it comes to funding the school’s art classes. During the school’s first three years of existence it received a substantial amount of funding from a California Department of Education Art Works Grant. The grant provided AUSD with $200,000 for various arts programs. FAA utilized this money to fund materials for various classes and subjects. Though the grant made the school financially viable, the art programs were not jeopardized when the funding was cut, because the school’s PTA became a major fundraising force, contributing $36,000 in just two years. The school also relies on money raised during performances. Because the FAA receives the same amount of funding as other schools in the district, despite offering more programs, it’s no surprise that the standard excuse that schools offer for not having an arts program is lack of funding.
 
“It’s very expensive to have a fine arts academy,� explains AUSD Superintendent James Stecher. “You build a program like this, and then you need a place for the students to perform. And if you’re going to run a strings class you’ve got to make sure you’ve got staff capable of teaching that.� As other schools argue that state budget cuts justify the absence of music, dance, and theater from their schools, what is Stecher’s big secret for maintaining arts programs in all the district’s schools? “We just choose to make sure that art is an emphasis in our district,� he explains. “We chose cuts that we felt were further away from the needs of our students.�
 
Besides funding, one of the district’s greatest concerns when  creating the school was ensuring that the quality of academic instruction was not diminished by increased emphasis elsewhere. Students at FAA have access to both a Learning Center and Homework Lab where they can receive additional instruction in core academic subjects. And Stecher believes that the fine arts can enhance a student’s grasp of other subjects. “Anything can be taught using the arts, whether it be math or science,â€? he says. “At the Fine Arts Academy we use the fine arts as a means of supporting the core subjects.â€?
 
Fortunately, mixing art and academics seems to be working, if standardized testing is an accurate reflection of academic achievement. In 2004 students at FAA scored well above both district and state averages in every academic subject. The only exception was the California Physical Fitness Test, in which FAA students scored below district averages, primarily because the school has not yet implemented a permanent physical education program. Though physical education may not be FAA’s prime focus, administrators don’t want the school to focus exclusively on art. “You just have to make sure the programs don’t become so specialized that students don’t receive a well-rounded education,� Stecher says. “Over-emphasis is not always good, in my opinion.�
 
At FAA all students have the opportunity to perform or display their work in various exhibits and shows. Every year the school hosts a winter program that incorporates all performance groups, from chorus and band to drama and dance. In addition, dance classes hold an annual dance show, while the drama department participates in an annual school play. Because the school does not have its own performance venue, administrators rely on the community for a performance space. Sometimes the high school’s Black Box Theater serves as a venue; on other occasions the FAA borrows a gym at a nearby school, and the chorus and band often take advantage of the superior acoustics of a local church. It’s not easy scrambling for a performance space but, as long as the arts remain a priority at the FAA, administrators know that the school district and community will recognize the school’s significance and continue to support their endeavors.
 
Though the FAA exists as one model for integrating academics and arts, it is by no means the only model. “I think it would be hard to make every school like this, and I don’t think it would be smart, because not every student needs this kind of education,� acknowledges Stecher.
 
But that doesn’t excuse the fact that some schools seem to be completely excluding arts from their curriculums. “All of our schools are provided with basic music instruction,� says Stecher. “We’re probably the only district in the county that still has a music program in all our elementary schools.� ∆

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is only interested in two out of the three R’s.
Send anything but equations to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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