Early Art Exposure Sets Students Up for Long-Term Success

Val Verde Unified School District
Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 16, 2019

Columbia Elementary School students engaged in a theatre workshop led by Riverside Arts Council instructors.


My name is Allyson Huntsman, and I am the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Teacher on Special Assignment, for the Val Verde Unified School District.  I wrote our district’s SSAE Grant Application, and am serving as project director for the 9-month grant timeline.  This was my first grant writing experience, and I am excited to share a bit about my district, the development of projects, and the incredible accomplishments we have made in a short amount of time.

I feel very fortunate to work in a school district so generously supportive of the arts.  It is understood in Val Verde that Arts studies help meet the needs of employers, by providing students the skills and experiences essential for 21st century employment.  In addition, it is Val Verde’s belief that the arts are integral to the promotion of the social, emotional, and academic growth of our students.  Simply, the Arts have a powerful impact on our unique clientele.

It was decided that the focus of Val Verde’s application would be Visual and Performing Arts exclusively.  Projects were designed to both strengthen current programs, and create new opportunities.  The proposal targeted large subgroups within our demographic, and current deficiencies (mostly at lower grade levels).  With quality secondary programs in place, this grant provided the opportunity to design a “bottom-up” approach to correcting deficiencies:

“Currently in VVUSD, stellar programs exist at all levels, but there is a need for increased programming and enhancements.  More (and better) art opportunities will help us promote the social, emotional, and academic growth of our students.  Especially in lower grade levels, there are few structured opportunities for arts education.  Classroom time is precious, especially when teachers need to use a variety of interventions to meet numerous student needs.  There are diverse art opportunities at the High School level, but artistic foundations need an earlier start.  In addition, with minimal opportunities in Elementary School, student growth in secondary programs is limited.  We need to expose younger students to a variety of art forms early.  Research consistently proves the importance of an arts education for 21st century readiness.  Simply, early art exposure sets students up for long-term success.”   (Huntsman, 2018).

Development of the grant proposal began with an analysis of needs (specific to our demographic) and deficiencies.  Val Verde Unified is a Title I district, with 83.4% of students classified as low-income, and 19.6% of students classified as English Language Learners (ELL’s).  In the development of every grant project, how the arts can meet the needs of these 2 sub-groups was a constant focus. 

Next, I took into account feedback from administrators, staff, students and parents in order to determine the direction of projects.  Finally, I met with partner organizations and local contractors to solidify plans that would create transformative and sustainable student arts experiences.  Projects were included in the application proposal if (and only if!) they could jumpstart long term activities.

The following grant activities were proposed in the application:

  1. K-8 after-school Theatre and Dance Classes (partnering with the Riverside Arts Alliance)
  2. Elementary Multicultural Drumming Program (partnering with educator Ray Lindsey)
  3. Museum Tours for various grade levels (partnering with the Riverside Art Museum)
  4. Elementary Visual Arts Curriculum Adoption (Meet the Masters)
  5. Middle School Digital Art Integration (Photography and Graphic Design)
  6. Middle School Piano Program

I was selected to be a peer reviewer for grant applications, and this was an incredibly rewarding experience.  I very much enjoyed reading proposals from California local education agencies.  Those responsible for the development and writing of proposals really focused on their local needs, and I could tell that this opportunity was meaningful statewide.  In December, I was both surprised and ecstatic to hear that Val Verde Unified had been selected to receive full funding for our proposal.  53 state Local Education Agencies were awarded, and Val Verde was one of only 3 Riverside County districts to attain this very competitive funding.

A nine-month period to spend just under seven digits is a very aggressive timeline, so we hit the ground running full force in January.  My project partners have been passionately committed to staying on track, and what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short amount of time is remarkably impressive.  Here are some highlights of what has transpired since January:

  1. Two eight-week sessions of Dance and Theatre classes were offered at 12 elementary schools and 4 middle schools led by Riverside Arts Council instructors.
  2. Multicultural drumming equipment from the following world regions (Africa, Brazil, Caribbean, Indonesia, Japan, and the Middle East) was acquired for every elementary school, and a student workshop at each site was conducted by drumming aficionado Ray Lindsey.
  3. All 1st grade and lower-level SPED students districtwide visited the Riverside Art Museum for a “Walk and Wonder” tour and art activity, and every elementary school additionally sent a bus of students to visit our in-district art museum.
  4. “Meet the Masters” Visual Arts curriculum and coordinating supplies were acquired for every elementary school, and training/roll-out is scheduled for August.
  5. Piano keyboard equipment has been purchased and received by 4 middle schools, and students have had regular after-school lab opportunities to develop playing skills.

The response from students, parents, staff, and administrators has been overwhelmingly positive.  Groups are filled to capacity, which indicates that projects effectively targeted what students both need and want.  In several instances, where demand was much greater than capacity, we were able to create additional opportunities, so as to turn away as few students as possible.  

Almost every grant project utilizes site-level leads, who manage projects on a local level.  After January meetings, where projects and responsibilities were outlined in detail, activities have rolled out quickly. The ease of site lead recruitment, and how seamlessly projects have progressed has shown me that Val Verde staff truly understand the benefits of projects, these and care about their prosperity.  I am incredibly grateful for the generous in-district assistance I have received to make projects a success.  The district is well aware of how positively stakeholders are responding to grant projects, and I was recently informed that my 2019-2020 annual LCAP budget is slated to fully cover all sustainment ongoing costs.

This grant has enabled Val Verde to provide activities, opportunities, and materials for meaningful art experiences for years to come.  With help from a team of amazing stakeholders, roughly 3,800 students have participated in grant activities since January, with more to come this year and next.  I am fortunate to have district support in covering ongoing costs, but future grant funding opportunities are a necessity both for Val Verde, and other local education agencies in need.   It is my hope that Val Verde’s success detailed in this story will aid in petitioning the state for future Title IV funding opportunities.


May Ranch Elementary School students visited the Riverside Art Museum for a “Walk n Wonder” tour and art activity

Triple Crown Elementary School students took a Caribbean Steel Pan drumming workshop with instructor Ray Lindsey.

Lakeside Middle School students attending after-school piano lab hours to learn piano skills.