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Growing up I was an average student. Art class was the place where I shined. It helped me build self-confidence and explore different career options I might not have otherwise considered: I received my Bachelor’s degree in film production. It was in my elementary school art class – where we used pipe cleaners to make puppets, painted portraits of our mothers, and crafted paper-mache animals – that I first discovered my talent as a visual artist. I went to mostly Latino and Asian public kindergarten and then private schools in San Gabriel. My peers and I did not have parents with artistic professions, but art was always a class open to us. Our art teachers exposed us to thinking and creating in a way that was different than in our general subject classes. Without it, I’m not sure I would have had the inspiration or confidence to take the path I did.

Students in the Alhambra Unified School District today are denied the same opportunity.The district maintains it incorporates art in different subject areas for all K-8 students, but due to budget cuts, the last time they had a certified instructor to teach the arts, recognized by the district as an arts specialist, was in the 2008-2009 school year. The city is among a growing number of districts that lacks a cohesive elementary visual arts program, which is defined as an education that includes a designated art teacher/specialist, a designated teaching space, classroom art materials, and a progressive art curriculum.

Art education
Art integrated into class time at Marguerita Elementary School in Alhambra, California. (Photo: Elisa Perez)

Nationwide about 17 percent of schools have discontinued their visual art program according to Sandra Ruppert, director of the national Arts Education Partnership. That 17 percent translates to about 4 million kids who are lacking a dedicated, sustainable visual art program. “Increasingly districts are struggling to close the gap on budgets and they’re looking at what they can cut,” Ruppert said. “In the view of some school leaders, they see the arts as extraneous, something that’s enrichment, or something that’s expendable.”

But students without a cohesive art program are not only missing out on paper-mache, they are missing out on the cognitive skills that are developed through the arts. Art education leads to better test scores and also encourages students to put forth their best effort in other academic subjects. A 2005 study published in the bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education found that low-income fourth grade students who had received art instruction from art specialists as well as arts integration in their entire curriculum scored better in math, science, social studies, and writing when compared to a control group that did not receive art instruction.

Because I did so well in my art class, I felt confident enough to start participating in class. The skills that students develop from studying the arts from an early age are the precise skills that enable a student to do well in their core subjects and on standardized tests, Ruppert maintains. More than 200 studies collected by the Arts Education Partnership have shown that the arts increase literacy and language art skills, math achievement, student engagement, motivation to learn, critical thinking development, and improve school culture.

Art education
Elisa Perez

The poorer districts have felt the deepest cuts, according to Ruppert. “We have a civil rights issue in this country,” she said, “because the kids who need art the most, are getting it the least.”

U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan has also called the loss of arts education in low-income schools a “civil rights” issue. “In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school,” he said in 2010. “President Obama recalls that when he was a child, ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts, everyone had access to music and other arts.’ Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”

In Alhambra, K-8 elementary schools offer no dedicated art instruction apart from a fourth-to-eighth grade music program. Up until the 2008-2009 school year, AUSD had two art specialists who rotated and taught art classes at each of the district’s 13 elementary schools. When the budget was cut due to a loss of over $50 million dollars in funding within the last five years, those specialists and classes were let go. General education teachers incorporated art into their schedules instead, but as priorities have shifted and the pressure to raise English language arts and math test scores has grown, the allotted time for art instruction has decreased.

The district maintains that artistic activity is still being provided, just not through a dedicated teacher. “We don’t have any elementary art teachers and we haven’t had any for many years now,” said the AUSD Director of Elementary Education, Janet Lees on the lack of art specialists in AUSD elementary schools for the past five years. “Elementary teachers are multiple-subject credential teachers. They tend to do art integrated with other content areas. If you were to go into any of our classrooms, you will see art.”

Lees says students actually get more exposure to art when it’s integrated with their other subjects, as it will be through the new Common Core State Standards that California has adopted. She acknowledged that it will not be prevalent in the curriculum right away. “We have a lot of work to do,” she said, adding the first step is the “need to focus on the foundation of English language arts and math.”

Multiple-subject teachers are struggling to make time for art instruction because of the demand to focus on English language arts and math according to Marguerita Elementary School Principal, Florence Goh. At Marguerita Elementary, teachers can no longer fit ‘art time’ into their teaching schedules but strive to incorporate artistic concepts and activities into the general curriculum. According to second grade teacher Lisa Vuong, art used to be a part of her lesson plans. “We used to do art every Thursday,” she said. “We would go into different types of media, we would use watercolors, tissue paper, we would do collage art. Oh, and the kids loved it, I feel bad. I wish that we would do it this year.”

Student Voices

What I would do with more money for California schools

This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and USC Annenberg’s Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities. Students from Alhambra, California — a predominantly immigrant Los Angeles suburb — wrote about how they’d spend a new influx of funding for the state’s schools.

Neighboring districts still maintain an art program taught by certified art teachers. In the San Gabriel School District, where I began my education, their educational foundation currently pays for an arts specialist to teach a class to elementary students. South Pasadena’s educational foundation also provides a dedicated visual arts program and an art specialist. San Marino has an art specialist and a music specialist. And LAUSD has many art specialists who teach dance, general vocal and instrumental music, theater, and visual arts. In June of 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched the Arts Education and Creative Cultural Network Plan in support of their stance on educational equity. The goal, according to the program’s website, is “To place more arts education opportunities and creative cultural experiences in reach of every student and their families, both inside and outside of the classroom.”

In Alhambra, art classes taught by dedicated teachers are only available for a fee through afterschool programs such as SPARK, which charges as much as $80 a week and is not available on every AUSD campus. Another option is the Alhambra Education Foundation’s summer school program, which costs $75 to $270.

The Alhambra Education Foundation is also trying to raise funds for an in-school music program for K-3 students. If successful, the foundation will fund a certified music teacher to teach the students and provide the necessary instruments. The executive director of the foundation, Sheryl MacPhee said that the benefits of music education are particularly meaningful for young children and English language learners. “It is the universal language. It helps with spatial thinking, critical thinking, even test taking processing,” she said. “It’s so important all across the board.”

The money that is now being allocated to schools through the Local Control Funding Formula could bring the arts back into Alhambra elementary schools. The funding formula will increase funding to all districts, but will give extra to those with high-needs students. Given that 67.9 percent of AUSD students are on free- or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, and 23 percent are English language learners, it is essential that the arts be reincorporated into the K-8 curriculum, because these are the students who need it most.

One of the most exciting components of the LCFF is the need for community engagement. Armed with the evidence of the benefits of arts education, Alhambra residents have the power to instigate change in their children’s education and bring back classes that help kids like me do better academically and find their passion.

This story was produced by USC Annenberg’s Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities, in partnership with The Hechinger Report. The local news site Alhambra Source, which is also affiliated with USC, hosted the project.

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