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Got to have art: Why Alhambra elementary schools should bring back dedicated art teachers

The Local Control Funding Formula, passed in 2013, provides extra money to California districts and also requires that they listen to parents, teachers and community members as they decide how to spend it. This story is the second in a series where Alhambra Source Reporter Corps participants explore how they would spend the funding. If you would like to learn more, there will be an Alhambra Unified School District board meeting on June 17.

Growing up, I was an average student, but art class was the place where I shined. In my elementary school class – where we used pipe cleaners to make puppets, painted portraits of our mothers, and crafted paper-mache animals – I first discovered my talent as a visual artist. I attended a public kindergarten and then private school in San Gabriel and while my peers and I did not have parents with artistic professions, art was always a class open to us. Our 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: I received my Bachelor’s degree in film production.

That is why I was particularly concerned to learn that students in the Alhambra Unified School District are denied the same opportunities I received. 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 art 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.  

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 students 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. I know this to be true from personal experience. Because I did so well in my art class, I felt confident enough to start participating in class.

Lower-income districts have suffered the deepest cuts to arts programming, 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. “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 dedicated ‘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.”

Neighboring districts still maintain an art program taught by certified art teachers. In the San Gabriel School District, where I began my education, the educational foundation 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. And San Marino has an art specialist and a music specialist.

In Alhambra, art classes taught by specialized 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 should be used to bring the arts back into Alhambra elementary schools. 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 students, 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, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The Alhambra Source encourages comment on our stories. However, we do not vet comments for accuracy or endorse links to posts in the comment section. The thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the author of the comment.

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1 thought on “Got to have art: Why Alhambra elementary schools should bring back dedicated art teachers”

  1. When I finished art school in 1992, the first job I had was creating a multimedia presentation for our California State Senate about the importance of arts education! I think it is so sad that this same debate has continued in the U.S. since that time (and was always there before 1992 as well).

    No one would ever suggest that we should integrate math education in all the other classes! The fact that many think the arts can be successfully taught by integrating it in other curriculum shows very clearly the lack of respect and understanding for the arts and arts education.

    Last month I took a Design Engineering course online from Stanford University. What most shocked me was the fact that I was taking a course that attempts to teach creativity to programmers and engineers because they do not have the necessary skills to think creatively and innovatively. When I questioned members of my learning group, I learned that none of them had any arts education. For anyone who knows and understands the arts and arts education – this is a no brainer: there are thousands of reasons we need arts education, but the primary one is that it teaches people to think creatively and innovatively!