Takeaways from Arts Ed Learning Exchange Conference

The Arts Ed Learning Exchange conference in San Diego in mid-March was an infusion of inspiration. Special thanks to the California Alliance for Arts Education which created this conference as part of the new Arts NOW Campaign. The campaign was designed to shine a light on districts and counties and the strategic investments they are making to improve the quality of education. Highlighted in this conference were emerging arts education models in San Diego Unified School District and Chula Vista School District. Participants had the opportunity to see how program partnerships were established, how sustainable models were designed, and how to build infrastructure, funding, and leadership commitment. In addition to these critical steps in setting up successful programs, we also addressed documentation of evidence, and highlighting and communicating results.

I was honored to have represented the California Alliance for Arts Education and connect with others interested in advocating for arts education at the local level. This was the first in a series of events for Arts NOW, and a future conference may even include highlighting the work of the Santa Cruz County Alliance for Arts Education. I look forward to applying all the great information and ideas I gathered and applying them to the work Arts Council Santa Cruz County is doing in Arts Integration and the use of Title 1 funds to address goals like English Language development, student engagement, and parent involvement.

Two districts highlighted provide insights into what makes arts integration successful. These are Chula Vista School District and San Diego Unified School District.

Chula Vista School District

This elementary school district formed a partnership with the San Diego Youth Symphony, which acted as Visual and Performing Arts coordinator to re-build and re-institutionalize how to implement an arts program. They started at the school level (rather than the board level) in the first year, then once they had outcomes to prove their success, they created board support through a presentation and performance. The board level commitment transformed the program making it a district-wide priority.

The process for expanding this successful Community Opus program, an El Sistema inspired program, was done in three phases, over the course of five years. Chula Vista focused on Local Control Accountability Plan strategies and funds. In year one, San Diego Youth Symphony began with just 65 students in 2 schools (all 3rd grade), where students received lessons twice a week after school. They developed 11 levels of proficiency, so no matter the age of a new student, they would enter at the appropriate level of experience.

By year four, they were able to expand to serving 3,000 students in 18 schools, during the day. They received a large grant from VH1 to support their efforts, and began to develop a strategic arts plan to ensure both sequential arts education and arts integration strategies, and professional development for their teachers. And by year five, VH1 increased their investment, and the district was able to hire a Visual and Performing Arts resource leader and five full time music teachers.

The district now has over 70 certificated Visual and Performing Arts specialists, and all forty-five schools have all arts disciplines, and professional development for arts specialists, generalists, and administrators.

This program initially targeted those schools with students that were most diverse, and part of the free and reduced lunch program. In a community where there had been a very clear line (the freeway) between the haves and have nots, these communities are now communing together around music. Other powerful outcomes included increased student engagement and parent involvement, leading to better test scores (which also clearly demonstrate the impact to school administrators).

San Diego Unified School District

This very large K-12 district has over 200 schools and 139,000 students. They focused on utilizing Title 1 strategies and funding. In October 2014, they were able to secure $1.5 million toward their arts programs for two years, in 22 schools. San Diego Unified School District formed a successful partnerships with several local arts agencies that bring teaching artists into the schools for arts integration residencies. Schools are given a ‘menu’ of options and pick the art forms that work best for their students’ needs, and then each school contracts with the arts organization for weekly classes.

All the classroom teachers and teaching artists attend a three day ‘boot camp’ led by professor Merryl Goldberg, where they plan the first ten weeks of the arts integration residency, and then they continue meeting monthly for follow up planning sessions throughout the residency to collaborate and nurture the co-teaching relationship.

Documentation was essential in proving to the ‘non-believers’ that arts integration was working. Site visit observation forms were collected for each site and compared to a control group (schools not receiving the arts integration program). Students and parents were also given a pre/post assessment on mindset to determine how they viewed themselves as learners. The 4 key outcomes were:

  • Joy that is transformative. Positive emotion opens the door to learning;
  • Enthusiasm for learning in other subject areas;
  • Deep and durable learning that transfers to other areas; and
  • Pride in themselves expressed through work.

Other outcomes included increased attendance, decreased student referrals, greater student engagement, increased parent involvement, and a positive shift in school climate.

Key Takeaways for Santa Cruz County Alliance for Arts Education

1. We are well positioned

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the model programs being highlighted in San Diego are similar to our 5-year Artist Teacher Partnership in Hall District Elementary School. Arts Council Santa Cruz County is providing arts education opportunities to over 14,000 students, county-wide, in schools and after school, and out in the community, as well as professional development for classroom teachers and teaching artists. Find out more about our arts education programs: SPECTRA, Mariposa’s Art, and Artist Teacher Partnership.

2. There is a window of opportunity

Best practices for developing district arts plans involves all stakeholders in a community: teachers, parents, students, and community-based arts organizations. This leads to creating a unified vision and roadmap. The ideal process involves convening these stakeholders for input at least 3-4 times throughout the process to gather input and identify priorities. Key focus areas include things like equal access, professional development, teacher recruitment, supplies, and community connections.

Interestingly, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District plan is in the process of getting approved in just a couple of weeks; however, key stakeholders have not yet been engaged in the process.

I left the conference re-inspired about our work with Pajaro Valley Unified School District, as it really has most of the necessary pieces in place – and the potential – to become a model district for arts education and arts integration. The next step will be to forge a truly collaborative partnership with them, at the leadership level. The Arts Council can provide the arts integration model and the professional development pieces, the district has the arts in their Local Control Accountability Plan, and the budget for 20 full time Visual and Performing Arts specialists, and they are currently in the process of updating their arts plan (the roadmap for implementation).

The arts plan will determine whether the district will implement their arts in partnership for a quality and sustainable model with sequential standards-based arts instruction, or whether they chose to do it on their own.

3. We need to better tell our story

We know that arts education teaches skills students need to be prepared for the 21st century work force, and that all students should receive an education that includes activities that reinforce academics, develop skills, and engage students in learning in a fun and holistic way – in and through the arts – where students are able to learn through seeing, doing, and being, providing them with a richer understanding of themselves and world around them.

And we need to show this to be true.

We have model programs already in place, but not the necessary documentation and evidence to illustrate how our programs are succeeding. We must collect both stories and data so that we, too, can shine a light on all the awesome that is happening here, in our own backyard.


Sarah Brothers

Arts Education Manager

Arts Council Santa Cruz County