State of the Arts

As many of our finest visual and performing arts programs endure the strain of budget cuts in recent years, are we doing enough to foster the talents of our creative children?

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    Michele Garber

It is late morning on a typical mid-December Southern California day … sunny, dry, a slight crispness in the air. Though pleasant outside, inside the cavernous Mira Costa High School auditorium it’s decidedly frosty. 

On stage, the members of Mira Costa’s Advanced Women’s Chorale and their beloved director of choirs, Michael Hayden, are preparing for an upcoming winter performance. Hayden gives a few stage directions and guidance for how to perform the pieces they are about to rehearse. Then they begin to sing, and a collective harmony so exquisite fills the brisk air in the hall—its resonance so layered, rich and vibrant—any notion of a chill instantly dissipates. 

As the Advanced Chorale rehearsal ends, Costa’s Vocal Ensemble—an advanced mixed chamber choir—streams in to prep for the same winter concert. Within moments the space is once again filled with magnificent sound. Displaying unmitigated talent, these young men and women perform their sophisticated repertoire with voices so pure, it stirs genuine emotion that could (and did!) bring a tear to a listener’s eye.

Hayden’s choirs make up just one essential piece of Mira Costa’s excellent visual and performing arts programs. The school’s programs—drama, dance, broadcast journalism, ceramics and a multitude of art disciplines—are thriving, while the students participating in them are receiving countless awards, honors and accolades. 

Most notably Mira Costa was named a 2014 GRAMMY Signature School Gold recipient, awarded to schools with a required trifecta of outstanding music including band, choir and orchestra. They have also been invited to play Carnegie Hall this May—an enormous honor. 

What is most striking about the tremendous success of Costa’s music department is that a mere 15 years ago the school didn’t even have an orchestra. Fortunately—recognizing the tremendous value of music education—parents, educators and the Manhattan Beach Unified School District (MBUSD) joined together to reestablish a strong and dynamic music program. They laid out a plan, began rebuilding, and within 12 years of re-launching an orchestra, Costa was accepting a GRAMMY.

Mira Costa’s vibrant visual and performing arts program is but one luminous star in a constellation of arts education that is shining throughout the South Bay. Yet the very notion that visual and performing arts education even exists—let alone is flourishing—runs contrary to conventional wisdom and hyperbolic accounts of the arts’ complete demise within our educational system. 

To be sure, school arts programs have faced seemingly insurmountable existential challenges. In an era when school districts are confronted with diminished funding and severe budget cuts, determining which curricula are expendable has been the fodder of fierce debate. Though few question the inherent value of art and music programs, when faced with painful choices, arts curricula are sadly first to get the axe. 

So it makes perfect sense why there are so many misperceptions about the current state of arts programs within our schools. Contrary to pervasive misinformation, visual and performing arts education still exists, and inspired results emanate from these programs every day. This is especially true in the South Bay, as successes like those of Mira Costa portend. 

So what is the state of arts education in the South Bay? What arts education is available to students? How are we paying for it? And most importantly, what impact does a robust arts education have on students’ lives and futures?

The myriad benefits, both long- and short-term, of arts education have borne out in countless studies. Arts curriculum is credited with improving language, writing and math skills, enhancing critical thinking and problem-solving, and has even been associated with lowering truancy and dropout rates of at-risk youth. 

In April 2013 the Arts Education Partnership, through its research arm ArtsEdSearch, published a report entitled “Preparing Students for the Next America: The Benefits of an Art Education.” The report sites more than three dozen studies taken from the late-1990s through 2012 that confirm the limitless ways arts education prepares students for success in school, work and life. Listed among the numerous merits are increased motivation, creativity and perseverance; enhanced collaboration, communication and leadership skills; and enriched civic engagement, sense of community and cross-cultural understanding.

Such an impressive roster of benefits should be reason enough to view arts education as essential. But there is an even more relevant and pressing need to reemphasize arts education: the challenges posed by 21st-century economic factors. In this new millennium, it is vital that American students develop skill sets that will enable them to compete in a rapidly changing and fiercely competitive global economy. 

Since the late-1990s, emphasis on preparing students for success in the technology-driven, millennial economy has primarily centered on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. STEM is undoubtedly a top priority if the U.S. is to maintain its global economic prominence. 

Yet it has become increasingly apparent that the global economy also requires a new type of imaginative thinking and creative problem-solving that STEM and standard “3-R” (reading, writing and arithmetic) instruction alone will not fulfill. To truly compete and thrive in the economy of the future, children need to develop their aptitude and confidence within a creative realm. Visual and performing arts education is uniquely qualified and essential to fostering these skills. 

Moreover, STEM and arts education are not mutually exclusive. Actually there is quite a bit of overlap between STEM and arts emphases. There is even a push to add arts education to the acronym and revise STEM to STEAM. 

For today’s students to fully succeed, they need to stimulate and develop both sides of their brains. They need well-rounded and comprehensive education—which unequivocally includes the arts.

Alas, providing that imperative arts education requires a shift in two critical factors. First, school districts and local, state and federal government agencies that oversee education must ensure arts programming is part of the required curriculum. Second, funding for arts curriculum must be included in education budgets. Auspiciously, the former is already happening, and the latter isn’t far behind.

Political and financial influences on education are extremely complicated. The U.S. education system is a massive labyrinth of regulations, laws, formulas and mandates overseen by a multi-level bureaucracy and a web of government agencies. 

Throughout the decades a succession of laws have been passed aimed in earnest at improving education for all children. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Race to the Top and Common Core have all sought to enhance and strengthen education—though most have fallen short or, in some cases, made things worse. 

They have also given increasing control over education decisions to the federal government. As a result, the newest endeavor at education reform was passed by the U.S. Congress this past December. The Every Student Succeeds Act is a bipartisan bill aimed at shifting control away from the federal government back to the states on issues of school accountability and performance. It overhauls NCLB and Common Core, returning much of the control regarding funding discretion to the state and local level. 

The fundamental truth is that the U.S., California—even the city and county of Los Angeles—are much too expansive to adequately address the diverse needs of education. Smaller districts such as those in the South Bay are far more efficient and effective at determining and addressing the needs of the children they serve. 

As Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)—an architect of the new law—puts it, “The path to higher standards and better teaching and real accountability is community by community, classroom by classroom, state by state … and not through the federal government dictating the solution.”

In California, legislation aimed at shifting education budget control from Sacramento back to the local level was passed in 2013. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) will be phased in incrementally by 2021. It is the first significant change in how education funding is handled in California since voters passed the controversial and historic Proposition 13 nearly four decades ago. 

LCFF replaces the old system of revenue limits and categorical spending with a per-student base grant, returning discretionary control of education funds to local districts. Though LCFF has its skeptics, it is a profound departure from the centralized power Sacramento has had over education since the passage of Prop 13. 

Prior to LCFF, California educational funding was determined and allocated through district revenue limits. The revenue limits system arose from two significant events in the 1970s: the California Supreme Court ruling in Serrano v. Priest and the passage of Proposition 13. 

Before 1971 local districts could set their own property taxes to fund education. This led to an enormous disparity in school funding and the quality of education between wealthy and poor neighborhoods. 

In 1971 the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of Serrano v. Priest based on the Equal Protection Clause of the state constitution. The ruling established a ceiling on revenues for the school district—thus equalizing revenues for all school districts. But districts found a way around the revenue limit by passing local referenda. 

As local districts continued to raise property taxes, homeowners on fixed incomes—especially the elderly—were losing their homes. Working families were reluctant to buy homes, unsure of future tax burdens. In 1978 California voters approved Proposition 13, which capped increases in property taxes at 1% of the assessed property value and annual increases capped at 2%. It also required future tax increases be approved by a 2/3 majority of voters. 

Prop 13 created tax certainty and stability within the housing market, but it adversely affected school funding—which hit art, music and other “elective” subjects disproportionately hard. Positive or negative, the consequences of Prop 13 remain a contentious subject.

In the wake of Prop 13, parents, teachers and local communities throughout California mounted their own campaigns to neutralize anticipated draconian educational funding cuts. In the South Bay several community and philanthropic organizations were formed in direct response to Prop 13. 

The advent of education foundations was one of the more prominent means with which communities addressed its fallout. Education foundations are not only able to raise much needed funds to supplement budget shortfalls, they provide substantial discretion for their school district to allocate funds in ways they consider necessary without government exerting unwelcome control. 

Every South Bay school district now has an education foundation to meet the particular needs of their local schools. Specific initiatives and fundraising methods of each of these 501c3 nonprofits may differ, but their prime objective is the same: They are committed to enriching the educational experience of students and ensuring that every student in their district has access and opportunity to receive a well-rounded and outstanding education that prepares them for careers and adulthood. 

These foundations have had an immeasurable impact on overall school success as well as maintaining art and music educational programs within districts. Education foundation funds are often used to hire additional teachers to ensure smaller class sizes, purchase new tech equipment and upgrade library facilities. Funds are also used to support arts education. Some foundations provide grants for specific arts initiatives, while others fully underwrite arts programs. 

The level of support provided by each education foundation largely depends on fundraising capabilities and the critical needs of their district. Regardless of the support offered, the school districts universally extol gratitude to their foundations, acknowledging that they wouldn’t be able to excel in the way they have for the past 40 years without the backing of these extraordinary foundations.

About the same time that education foundations were created, a grassroots effort was initiated by a group of proactive parents whose children were enrolled in the Palos Verdes Unified School District (PVUSD). Increasingly concerned about budget cuts and the elimination of visual arts in their children’s schools, they launched a program called Art at Your Fingertips to ensure local children could continue to experience the wonders of art. 

The program became so successful that by 1982 it had expanded beyond PVUSD to include other neighboring areas of the South Bay as Beach Cities Art at Your Fingertips. These sister programs eventually became Young at Art (YAA) in Hermosa and Manhattan Beach, Adventures in Art in Torrance and South Bay Hands on Art in Redondo Beach.

Each of these local art programs shares a common mission to encourage and inspire children’s creativity, imagination, sense of adventure and experimentation through meaningful art experiences. These nonprofit art programs offer students in public and private local schools curated art education within the classroom environment. 

Each school year, program chairs partner with professional artists and design several art experiences with differing themes in a variety of mediums. The artists then host workshops to train volunteer docents how to complete the project and how to teach it to students. The docents are comprised entirely of dedicated parent volunteers. There are typically six projects each school year, thus six training workshops, plus the time spent in the classrooms. 

Each of these programs has hundreds of volunteer docents teaching thousands of children in their neighborhood schools. Though the time commitment of the docents in extensive, they—along with the local artists—enthusiastically participate because of the immense satisfaction they derive from inspiring children through art.

Isabie Gombas has volunteered as a docent for Young at Art for eight years and served as a school chair at Hermosa Valley and Hermosa View for six years. She and her co-chairs oversee approximately 93 docents for just the two Hermosa campuses. YAA, which serves public and private schools in Hermosa and Manhattan Beach, has well over 300 docents teaching grades K-8. 

“It’s amazing how the kids are so receptive when they know they’re having a YAA lesson. They get so excited,” explains Gombas. “They’re thirsty for it. It’s one of the few times in school when they are free to be really creative. We give them the steps to make the project and we give them the tools, but they get to express themselves. Essentially it is their creativity that comes out. It’s not about the end product; it’s about the creative process. And they have a passion for it.”

Local artist Rafael McMaster is currently working with Hermosa View students on a YAA photography project entitled Extra/Ordinary. McMaster takes the students on walks and helps them develop their eye to spot the beauty and wonder of everyday objects and capture that beauty in their photos. The art created by the students whom McMaster is mentoring will be exhibited and auctioned off at the Hearts of Hermosa annual fundraiser, with proceeds benefitting the Hermosa Beach Ed Foundation. 

McMaster believes that if kids are exposed to art at an early age, they become comfortable and confident with their creativity. He equates this with learning to surf or ski. When these skills are acquired while one is young, they come more naturally and stay with them through life. 

The same holds true for creative thinking. McMaster says, “Creativity is a skill that can be developed. Kids have an innate ability to be creative if given the tools and proper encouragement.”

At Torrance High, theatre arts teacher Casie Duvall oversees a drama program that puts on five shows each school year. Some are elective extracurricular and open to the whole school, while others are available to students studying in advanced theatre classes. 

The productions staged by the Torrance students are completely self-sufficient, receiving no funds from the school or district. Students fund-raise throughout the year to support their program, so they feel invested in the quality and success of the productions. Duvall would like to see performing arts become required curriculum. 

“Theatre and performing arts prepare students for life,” she explains. “They learn to problem-solve, they develop people skills and learn self-responsibility and how their behavior affects others. They also develop a stronger sense of self. Drama gives them presence and confidence, and a feeling of ‘I’ve got this.’ It helps them with public speaking. And it fosters their imagination.”

Years before students act in Duvall’s theatre program or sing in Hayden’s choir, seeds of creativity are sown via programs like Art at Your Fingertips, or the visual and performing art courses regaining their status in core curriculum. 

In the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, every student receives weekly music education in grades one through five. This emphasis on early exposure to music teaches students basic music concepts while instilling a love of music that can last a lifetime. 

Katie Cavallaro teaches string instruments in the Manhattan Beach elementary schools. She teaches 28 classes per week in grades three through five, rotating between the five campuses. String classes include violins, violas and cellos. 

On a recent visit to observe Cavallaro’s fifth-grade string class at Pennekamp Elementary, the multi-layered value of music education was clearly on display. During the day’s lesson plan they practiced scales, rehearsed several pieces they’re currently learning and discussed various music topics—from the tone of half notes to the concept of surround sound. They even learned the meaning of a few music-related Italian words. 

At such a young age, their musical abilities are already remarkably impressive, and not one child in the room seemed bored or ambivalent. They were engaged, participatory and eager. At the end of the class they beamed as they expressed their genuine enthusiasm for music and their chosen instruments.

By middle school music becomes an elective in the MBUSD, but the early exposure to music in elementary school translates into greater participation and interest for middle school students. Any student who studied an instrument in fifth grade can continue their studies without review in sixth grade. 

Progressing on to seventh- and eighth-grade music classes, students need to audition and demonstrate a level of proficiency to continue their music studies. The students also have more discretion to select alternative instruments or, in some cases, play multiple instruments. 

During a recent visit to Manhattan Beach Middle School, one of Denise Haslop’s concert band classes was learning a song by the pop group Smash Mouth as part of their repertoire. Beyond learning traditional orchestral pieces, integrating a variety of genres including pop and rock keeps the curriculum fresh and the students engaged.  

By exposing their students to music education at an early age, MBUSD has successfully built award-winning music programs at both the middle and high school levels. This is but one example of the recognized impact and long-term benefits that visual and performing arts education has on our children. 

These miraculous benefits are on display every day in every school—public and private—throughout the South Bay. Though traditional scholastic fundamentals must continue to be a primary emphasis in core curriculum, the arts have proven to be an invaluable enhancement to a well-rounded education. 

By ensuring that all children have the priceless opportunity to experience the wonder and joy of arts education, we ensure a vibrant future for generations to come.