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Mobile program reaches students to help fill gaps in arts education

Five-year-old Emmett Joanou puts some serious elbow grease into sanding down a piece of wood that he plans to work into the toy airplane he's building.

“This is hard,” Emmett admits. “It's not fun when you have to sand. You have to sand a long time.”

Rather than working in a traditional school shop class, he's standing at a work station stocked with hammers, egg beater drills, and saws — all of which fits in a converted bus operated by the nonprofit Side Street Projects.

As arts programs have been cut back in some districts, nonprofits and community groups have stepped in to fill the gap in school arts education. 

Side Street is one of more than 40 community arts organizations that partner with the Pasadena Unified School District. 

"We really need the strength of our community art partners as much as we need our own internal staff," said Jen Olson, arts education coordinator for the district.

Every third-grader in the district, as well as a group of fifth-graders, participate in Side Street's instruction. Students learn woodworking and art skills like design, fabrication and creative problem solving. 

A new study by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission found all but two of the county’s 81 school districts have partnerships with community organizations to provide instruction in areas like visual arts and music. 

Still, some arts education experts say parents should ask questions to learn about the effectiveness of such programs. 

"It really is more beneficial to have a licensed educator who has that overview that way we are certain that those children have received the best possible education in visual art," said Pat Franklin, president of the National Art Education Association based in Virginia. 

RELATED: After recession cuts, LAUSD reconnects with community art groups

Franklin said while any art instruction is helpful for kids, students benefit the most when a full-time art teacher leads a long-term arts education program.

"The ideal is to have the art education curriculum be sequential from Pre-K through 12," she said. 

Franklin offers recommendations on what constitutes a top-quality arts education, among them that students get at least once-a-week arts instruction for the full school year. 

California law requires that all students from grade 1 to 12 have access to arts education instruction in dance, theater, visual arts and music. But a KPCC survey in 2014 found few Southern California districts offer that level of arts instruction.

In the survey, districts reported an average of just one full-time art teacher per 740 students. With current budget constraints, many districts can't afford comprehensive arts education.

The Pasadena district has been working to increase arts education for students. Next year, officials will add an elementary music teacher funded by the district, bringing the total number of elementary music teachers to 4.1 full-time positions.

But for the elementary grades, the district doesn't employ any dedicated dance, theater or visual arts teachers. Instead, all classroom elementary teachers have access to arts curriculum. According to a survey of teachers from the 2013-2014 school year, about half of the elementary grade teachers conduct at least one visual arts lesson per week.

Teaching art concepts

During a visit earlier this month to Side Street's headquarters, a group of kids stood aboard the mobile woodworking bus, intently working on their creations.

The organization is 100 percent mobile. Its headquarters is a 1953 silver Spartan trailer currently parked in a lot at John Muir High School in Pasadena. 

Students are taught safety skills and how to work with the tools. But it's not play: they are treated like artists and learn concepts about design and fabrication.

"We bring the shop class to the school instead of every single school having to invest the infrastructure in having a whole shop class," said Side Street’s Executive Director Emily Hopkins.

She said the organization can be packed up and on the road in just an hour and 20 minutes.

"L.A. is so decentralized that mobile things are really important for underserved populations to be served," she said.

Side Street sees about 3,000 students a year and over half of them receive instruction for free. Much of the organization's work is done in local schools, but it also offers summer camps and afterschool programs for a fee. 

Bronwyn Mauldin, research and evaluation manager at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, authored the recent county study on community arts organizations.

"We hope that in the long run that we're seeing community arts partners providing services in all of the L.A. County's public schools," she said. "It's part of how we ensure that all students in all schools have equitable access to high-quality arts education."