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3 years later, results of LAUSD's arts experiment are mixed

Eighth Grader Kenny Martinez and the Berendo Middle School band perform before an arts education event on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at Rosalyn S. Heyman Auditorium.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
FILE: Eighth-grader Kenny Martinez and the Berendo Middle School band perform before an arts education event on the state of arts education in the Los Angeles Unified School District on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at Rosalyn S. Heyman Auditorium.

In 2012, Los Angeles Unified school board members made arts instruction a core subject, designating it as important as subjects like math and English. The move was aimed at getting the arts to every student in the district, and it won applause from arts supporters around the country. 

But as the district's decision nears its third anniversary this October, the goal of universal arts instruction remains elusive. A KPCC analysis of the most recent district data found that at about 100 elementary schools, the vast majority of students get no arts instruction.

Still, across the district, there are signs of improvement. Forty-five new art teachers were hired for the new school year, according to district numbers, and resources like professional development for teachers have been increased. Plus, the district's arts branch has launched a series of arts festivals that showcase student work. 

Many of the changes stemmed from a recent survey of principals called the Arts Equity Index that attempted to take stock of each school's arts instruction, including the number of minutes students received in the arts.

The survey showed a wide disparity among schools in the amount of instruction in the arts students received. As a result, funding was redistributed to provide instruction where it was needed the most.

But for some, the changes also prompted some backpedaling as long-standing arts programs were dismantled and arts teachers were reassigned to new schools. 

"I feel that we’re robbing from what’s working to make something that I feel is less effective,” said René Rowland, a vocal music teacher who has taught within the district for 20 years.

Rowland said she knows of art teachers who have taken early retirement as a result of the shifting of resources. Others, she said, are stressed by new school assignments that have them driving long distances to teach art at multiple schools. 

One school tells the tale

At Walnut Park Middle School, a campus that's home to two separate middle schools, is a $6.2 million multipurpose room for the arts.

The facility holds a stage and audience seats for 800, yet since the school opened in 2012 it has never been used for a student play or production. The school also has a dance studio with a ballet bar and floor to ceiling mirrors, but no dance teacher. There are practice rooms for music, but no music teacher and hardly any instruments. 

"We don’t use the lights at all because we don’t know how," said Principal Aida Coronado-DeLeon of Walnut Park Middle School's School of Social Justice, on a recent walk by the stage.

Since the Walnut Park campus opened, neither of the two schools has had an art teacher — until this year. Coronado-DeLeon is happy the reshuffling of resources following the arts equity survey landed her an arts teacher. 

Teresa Wierzbianska, a first-year instructor, has been assigned to teach theater. She had almost no training or time to prep to teach theater. She had been trained in English and expected to be teaching that subject.

"I found out Friday I was teaching theater and I started teaching on Tuesday," she said, recalling the start of the new school year. 

While her hiring is a sign of the progress underway in the district as arts instruction spreads, it is also indicative of some of the problems with the initiative, as when some teachers are assigned without adequate training or preparation time.

But Walnut Park was among dozens of middle schools that offered no art at all prior to the arts equity survey. Out of more than 200 secondary schools, Walnut Park’s district-assigned arts score ranked in the bottom six schools, meaning its arts instruction was next to nil.

Walnut Park's students are also among the poorest in the district. About 95 percent of kids from the two schools come from families whose low incomes qualify the students for free or reduced meals. By comparison, the district school average is 76 percent.

Rory Pullens, the head of arts education for the district, acknowledged some schools did lose arts instruction time so that others more in need could get it. He said there isn't enough funding to go around.

"My heart breaks as I, I look at where schools are on the arts equity index and I get calls from principals and we just don’t have enough," he said.

Pullens said he needs about $75 million to implement a fully functioning arts instruction plan across the district. Right now, he said he’s got $26.5 million.

Some question the way the district has gone about carrying out its arts instruction goal and allocating resources to schools. 

“We feel that it’s a huge disservice to place unprepared teachers in schools," said dance teacher Ginger Fox, the arts education committee chair for UTLA, the teachers' union. She added that many of the changes this year affecting art teachers seemed careless and unplanned, not in the interest of helping kids learn. “It just seemed to be haphazard.”

Fox praised Pullens for making some improvements since he joined the district last summer, but said teachers need to be more involved in making decisions as the district expands the arts. She and a group of other teachers have prepared a list of concerns that they plan to submit to school board members. 

Steve Venz, the visual and performing arts coordinator for Orange County’s Department of Education, spent many years working for LAUSD in various arts education roles.

Venz supports many of the district's improvements and its increased arts funding. But he said some of the district's efforts are short-sighted, like a controversial nine-week student instruction plan that the district expanded this school year.

"There’s just so many ways of doing this in a much more strategic way ... other than just hoping that you hit all of the schools within a short amount of time. Because there’s not going to be much rigor there," he said. 

For many students and parents, the question unanswered is how soon pupils will get any arts instruction at all.

District officials have said without more resources, it’s possible that some students could go through most of their school career having not taken a single arts class.

Listen to Mary's conversation about her report with the hosts of Take Two