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Is it curtains for the arts in California's public schools?

Stories by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Photos by Scott Buschman

In "Steel Pan Alley," a small room behind the stage at J.W. Fair Middle School, 21 students play an enthusiastic version of "Margaritaville" on their steel drums.
 
As the band of mostly eighth-graders pounds out the Caribbean melody, music teacher Deborah Prieskop beams her approval from under a lavender hat and claps along.
 
Schools without the arts might be educating students, but they're preventing them from expressing themselves, says Deborah Prieskop, whose music classes at J.W. Fair Middle School in San Jose have been cut back to one period a day.
The song's lyrics, made famous by Jimmy Buffett, are about "wasting away" in a tropical resort. And Prieskop finds that somewhat ironic because her music program is also wasting away unbeknownst to most of the young musicians happily rehearsing for an upcoming performance at the San Jose Civic Auditorium.
 
"It's pathetic," says Prieskop, a member of the Franklin-McKinley Education Association. Because of dwindling funds and the need to raise test scores, her district is cutting the music program from nine classes and two teachers to five classes and one teacher. "The elementary feeder music program has been eliminated completely." Since learning she had been assigned to teach only one period of music next year and spend the rest of her time teaching scripted math and English, Prieskop has decided to retire.
 
"We might be educating students," she says, "but we're preventing them from expressing themselves or having any joy or soul in their school day."
 
"School would be really boring if they took music away," says eighth-grader Westley Cai. "I don't think they should do that."
 
What's happening to art and music education in San Jose is typical throughout the state. California ranks 50th in the nation in the ratio of music teachers to students, according to a report from the California Superintendent's Task Force on Visual and Performing Arts.
 
There's been a 50 percent decline in the percentage of music students in California public schools over the past five years from 18.5 percent in the 1999-2000 school year to 9.3 percent in 2003-04 according to the Music for All Foundation study "The Sound of Silence." The greatest decline was in the area of general music, which suffered an 85 percent decrease in student enrollment. The number of music teachers declined by 26.7 percent during the same period, representing an actual loss of 1,053 teachers.
 
"The decline has been so significant that music education has suffered the greatest losses in percentage enrollment, actual student enrollment and teachers than any other academic subject. These losses are clearly disproportionate to those in any other academic subject," notes the study, which blames the decline on the budget crisis and the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
 
Arts advocates and educators say that the situation has been made worse by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cuts. "As of fall 2004, California has no dedicated source of state funding for arts education," reports the California Alliance for Arts Education (CAAE). "From 1999 through 2004, the California Department of Education administered a $6 million competitive grant program, titled 'Arts Work.' Although CAAE and the arts community were successful at advocating at the state Legislature for restoration of the funding in the 2005 budget, Gov. Schwarzenegger eliminated the funding entirely, leaving California with no state funding specifically designated for arts education."
 
Ironically, the governor declared March to be "Arts Education Month," proclaiming that "the arts are one of humanity's most expressive means of understanding the world, providing a universal language for people to communicate across continents, time and social barriers."
 
The proclamation went on to say that arts education gives students the skills to challenge their imagination and push the boundaries of their potential.
 
The California Arts Council's Arts in Education and Artist-in-Residence programs, formerly funded at more than $10 million annually, have also been gutted by the governor's budget. These programs provide professional artists to assist teachers in the classroom. However, due to budget cuts, only $1 million in funding is now available for these programs.
 
While the governor talks about taking his case to "the people," cutting arts education is not what the people have in mind. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Gallup organization, 95 percent of Americans believe that music is a key component in a well-rounded education. More than three quarters of those surveyed said that schools should "mandate" music education. And the California Parent-Teacher Association has started a "Bring Back the Arts" campaign to enhance children's education.
 
Laurie Schell, CAAE executive director, says the association is attempting to "overturn the governor's blue-lining" of arts education funding through lobbying at the Legislature. "We're also trying to educate the governor's office so he can see why arts education is important in California. It fits right into his message of trying to build a healthy California. There are job opportunities that are being filled by people from out of state and out of the country because we aren't educating students to hold these jobs. Eliminating funding for the arts will have an economic impact on this state."
 
"It's because of the arts that Gov. Schwarzenegger is rich and popular as an action hero," observes Stockton music teacher Arthur Coleman Jr., whose budget was cut in half this year. "The fact that he's not trying to protect the arts is a strange dichotomy. It's very ironic. I would love to challenge him to 'give back' to the source that gave so much to him and made him what he is."
 
In addition to eliminating all funding specifically for the arts, the governor has broken his promise to fully fund Proposition 98. When cuts have to be made, arts education is often the first program to be axed.
 
"I'm definitely on the chopping block," says Peggy DePue, who teaches painting, drawing and sculpting to middle school students at Georgetown School in the Sierra foothills. A member of the Black Oak Mine Teachers Association, she struggles every year to save the program. "I think that arts programs are targeted first when cuts are made because a lot of people think the arts are fluff."
 
It took $8,000 worth of cookies for Stockton dance students to participate in last year's regional competition, says Ana Frenes (left).
"I've been teaching drama for 17 years, and it's been harder and harder to get the materials we need," says Glendale High School drama teacher Mack Dugger, a member of the Glendale Teachers Association. "In my drama classes, the kids raise money for lighting, lamps, furnishing the stage and even putting carpet in the room. My kids painted this room and we maintain it the best we can. We are more than doing our part. But the state needs to do its part and fund Prop. 98."
 
"Although it has been 25 years since the passage of Proposition 13, which cut funding for the state's public schools and virtually eliminated arts programs, schools are still struggling to find a place in their budgets for the arts," reports the San Francisco Chronicle. "There is nothing uniform in the way California public schools fund arts programs. Some schools and districts with subsidies form nonprofit arts organizations. Other schools rely on active parents' groups. Still others have no budget and count on classroom teachers to incorporate art into the curriculum."
 
Funding for school K-12 arts programs is mostly under local control, according to Schell at CAAE. "Some districts, most notably Los Angeles Unified, have committed to a 10-year plan and have invested millions of dollars on an annual basis for arts education."
 
This kind of commitment is the exception rather than the rule, notes Schell. It's more common for teachers and administrators to become "adept at filling the funding gap through a range of 'soft money' solutions," like applying for grants, some as large as $1 million. There are more than 400 local education foundations in California that dedicate the proceeds from annual fundraising campaigns to the visual and performing arts. "It is not unusual to find a school arts program that is totally funded by the local PTA from the proceeds of bake sales, jog-a-thons and other community events."
 
In some communities, parcel taxes provide the sole funding for arts education. In Brisbane, near San Francisco, voters recently renewed a parcel tax that allows the district to keep art and music in the elementary and middle schools. Less lucky were students in Ojai, where voters rejected a proposed parcel tax to keep music in the schools, along with other endangered programs.
 
In low socioeconomic communities where parental support can't foot the bills either through a parcel tax or donations, teachers raise funds to preserve their program. Some describe this double duty as two full-time jobs.
 
"We have sold thousands of dollars worth of cookies and other things," says Stockton band teacher Coleman. "I still have two bus bills from last year that haven't been paid. I have an outstanding bill at the local music store that does my repairs. I'm asking my Booster Club parents to help pay for these things, but the district should pay for them, too."
 
"This year I received $1,500 from the district for the entire year," says Stockton dance teacher Ana Frenes. "That was enough for one bus trip to Hayward to attend a regional dance festival." Last year it took about $8,000 worth of cookies to make it possible for students to compete.
 
Frenes, who teaches five dance classes a day and sponsors the school's Student Activities Dance Club, includes lessons on finances in her curriculum. "One of the things I emphasize in the dance club is that this is a business and they need to be a part of it. Students need to solicit donations in the community, write letters to the newspaper and get involved in publicity. I tell them they have to make sacrifices and write letters of gratitude to those who have contributed. I let them know that money is never just handed to them and they need to be aware of the financial situation we are in."
 
You wouldn't know it by the state of school funding, but California's State Board of Education adopted visual and performing arts content standards in 2001, describing what every student should know and be able to do in the visual and performing arts (pre-K-12). A newly revised "Visual and Performing Arts Framework for California Public Schools (K-12)," published in 2004, incorporates and identifies key standards in each discipline. Arts education is also part of the state's Master Plan.
 
The University of California and California State University systems have instituted new policies officially including the arts as a requirement for entrance. By 2006, applicants must have completed a single course in dance, music, theater or the visual arts in a yearlong sequence. According to CAAE, this requirement may be the only thing keeping arts programs alive and "relatively stable" at the high school level, even though most remain underfunded.
 
Unfortunately, feeder programs at elementary and middle schools are drying up. High school programs will soon find fewer students entering with training in the arts, especially in low socioeconomic areas where students may not have access to private lessons.
 
"When I retire, I won't be replaced," says Ricki Pedersen, the last full-time music teacher in Chula Vista's regular elementary schools. In a manner typical of many school districts, "the others gradually retired one by one and were not replaced."
 
It's difficult to fit the arts in with all the requirements, even at the kindergarten level, says Emily Sosa at Monroe Elementary in Stockton.
"Elementary programs in the arts continue to be fragile and inconsistent in funding, in access for all students, in addressing all arts disciplines and in delivery by credentialed teachers," notes a CAAE report. "Visual and performing arts programs in California public schools are offered to some of the students, some of the time, in some of the arts disciplines, by a sometimes credentialed and qualified faculty, in somewhat adequate facilities hardly the comprehensive approach one would expect in a 'core' subject area."
 
Although NCLB defines the arts as a core subject, the testing frenzy surrounding NCLB requirements and possible sanctions including school closure or conversion to a charter school have had a devastating effect on arts education. Resources are now allocated to subjects reflected on state standardized tests language arts and math at the expense of the arts.
 
"Perhaps they thought they were helping when they passed this legislation," says Prieskop in San Jose. "Maybe the legislators thought that since they had had children in the schools, they knew all about schools. But No Child Left Behind is destroying the music programs here and in other schools."
 
"The way things are going, we're at risk of turning out students who just know how to take tests," says CAAE's Schell. Without the arts, students will lose the ability to express themselves. "Students won't understand nuance, creative problem solving, working thematically across disciplines and working collaboratively. That's what we are in danger of losing here in California."
 
Next year, Prieskop says, many English language learners and remedial students at her school will be assigned three periods of language arts, two periods of math and one period of PE each day. "There will be no social studies, no science and no exploratory electives like music. The poor babies. They are taking away all the things they enjoy in school. It seems very harsh."
 
The magnet arts middle school in Stockton where Coleman has taught marching band, jazz band and concert band for the past 12 years will be restructured as part of a districtwide plan to improve test scores. Middle schools are being merged with elementary schools in hopes that test scores in grades 6-8 will go up in a K-8 setting.
 
Coleman is transferring to the high school because he fears that the restructuring plan will eliminate middle school bands and disperse the talent pool of students over a wide area. Phasing out feeder programs in the lower grades is likely to mean the quality of Stockton's high school programs will suffer and students will arrive without musical training.
 
Monroe Elementary in Stockton.
Coleman is sad to see the exemplary music program he helped to develop go by the wayside. "It gave the kids something to aspire to, and gave the high school program some kids to pull from. My kids had to have a GPA of 3.0 to be in the band. Every time their grades would slip, they'd come see me to figure out how to improve. Now, I worry that we are not focusing on what's important. In the midst of our desperation to raise test scores, sometimes we forget about the kids. Yesterday, three kids came up to me and said they can't take music next year because they are taking two English classes and have no room for electives. That hurts me deep down inside."
 
Gwyn Pellegrini was a music teacher in Rio Lindo until the district eliminated music for elementary school children last year. Now a language arts resource specialist, she has been asked to provide professional development for fellow teachers on ways to incorporate music into the curriculum. "The district has music books and musical instruments that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, but they are locked away in closets. I felt that this was tragic, and thought maybe classroom teachers with a talent or love of music could share these things with their students if I gave them a few tools."
 
While some teachers have been able to incorporate her ideas, others feel too overwhelmed by testing. "Because of all of the demands of standards and accountability, some classroom teachers thought it was just one more thing to do." Students constantly run up to her on the playground and ask her why they can't come to her music classes anymore. "It breaks my heart that we can't give music to all children," she says.
 
Even in preschool and kindergarten, testing pressure has meant a reduction in arts education. "It's very difficult to fit art and music in," says Emily Sosa, who teaches all-day kindergarten at James Monroe Elementary School in Stockton. "We have kindergarten standards. They have to know how to read and write before they leave kindergarten. They have to know how to add and subtract, make comparisons, understand simple graphing and do some measurements. This year we have added on science standards and social studies standards. I have to sacrifice two to three weeks just for testing."
 
She says it's too bad there is so little time for the arts, which allow kids to express themselves individually in a creative way. "We are trying to hang on to that, but we can't spend too much time because the children need to read and write in English, and 85 percent of my children don't speak English."
 
"We are doing federally mandated testing for 4-year-olds, which President Bush and his friends from Texas have pushed on us," says preschool teacher Simone Zulu, president of the Palmdale Elementary Teachers Association. "Preschool has become more academic for kids who are not ready for academics, and children are being labeled as soon as they walk in the door."
 
When very young children are denied art and music, it's bad for their mental development, even if they can't speak English. "I speak from personal experience because I came here at age 13 from Africa and didn't speak a word of English," says Zulu. "I listened to music all the time and repeated words to the songs, and it helped me learn the language.
 
"The arts are important," she adds. "If you put your hand on your heart, you will find that even your heart beats to music. They can never take that away from students."
 



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