No Art Left Behind
Despite a maddening mix of fact and fiction about music and our children’s interest in it, local music education is thrumming along. In the past six years, San Diego Unified School District has actually grown their music offerings, the pool of teachers, and partnership programs with music foundations of all stripes. The power behind the program resides in an old, unlovely Mission Beach office, a converted grade school, the Visual and Performing Arts, or VAPA. The department umbrellas visual arts, theater, dance, music, and the newest addition, media. Its three-person staff, augmented by three resource teachers, answers the fickle state mandate: arts curricula is required in California schools K–6, even though districts reserve ways to not offer it. What is and is not required is a maze made for district manipulators. While federal law requires arts instruction, the California education code, which takes precedent, states that grades 1–6 “shall include” arts, theater, music, and dance instruction; grade 7–12 “shall offer” such courses. At least one or more arts courses, which continue to be given in most high schools, are required for admission to the University of California and the California State universities.
At the helm of the department is director Karen Childress-Evans. She’s been six years at the top, bringing degrees in performance (viola) and education, classroom instruction in dance, theater, and music (the Suzuki method), plus administrative chops to her job. Nowadays, most administrators must be advocates, not only to blunt the budget hatchet but to find private donors. Dressed in a black turtleneck and plaid wool skirt — there’s a workman vacuuming her office after the January deluge — Childress-Evans is a lioness, a nonstop talker whose enthusiasm for the arts is infectious. She tells me she’s always “infused” the arts into her teaching. “That made it more interesting for the kids — and certainly more interesting for me. I was a better teacher for it, but my kids learned better that way, too.”
In 2004, Childress-Evans inherited a San Diego elementary-school arts program that was depleted, unbudgeted, moribund. At best, grade-school teachers who could carry a tune might lead their charges in the occasional sing-along. In 2006 — the last fat year for funding — the California legislature gave a generous Arts Block Grant to all state schools. Every district got one-time and ongoing money for “arts, music, and physical education equipment and supplies,” as well as a budget “to hire additional staff to support standards-aligned instruction in arts and music.” The amount expended by the end of 2007 in San Diego unified was almost $1 million. The one-time money was much higher than the ongoing funds.
“Luckily, they gave every single penny to me,” she says. Childress-Evans created a five-year strategic plan, budgeting for fat and lean times. She divided the money according to student population at each site. Only when the principal gave her an arts plan did she fund that school’s program. The grant bought musical instruments ($250,000 worth annually), digital equipment, and textbooks. Steadily, arts and music instructors were hired — all are itinerant — until their number is now 28 and their salary some 80 percent of the visual and performing arts budget. “Peoplewise, we’ve grown because we’ve built programs,” Childress-Evans says. “Moneywise, we’ve decreased.” Ever mindful of the axe waiting to fall, she says that she’s already cut down to the “bare bones. If we don’t get funds next year, we’ll be lopping off arms and legs.”
According to Mark Nicholson, the instrumental music specialist who also has an office at the Mission Beach headquarters, once kids heard the array of instruments that students might study with the block grant — instruments and instruction which hadn’t been offered for years — they leapt at the chance to play them. Nicholson says that not until 2007 did the visual and performing arts program reach all 123 elementary schools in the district and 11,100 students in grades 4–8. There are 202 schools in the district, serving 135,000 students. Music is either required or offered at every one. “The hardest thing to change,” Nicholson said, “is the perception of the public. They think music and arts aren’t in the schools. People can’t get their minds around that.”
Childress-Evans is quick to praise the school board, whose members by and large, she says, support her efforts. In fact, the district is “an anomaly,” the only one in California that has “100 percent of our elementaries with instrumental music.”
Childress-Evans and her staff, however, have discovered that district money isn’t enough to build and sustain the program they feel kids deserve. They are constantly looking for new outside funds, finding sources organized in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which, themselves, countered the then-widespread cuts in music programs. Perhaps the best known is VH1’s “Save the Music” foundation — money given, often by millionaire rock stars, to train teachers, to fund existing programs, and to bring musicians into schools. Each year, San Diego unified gets some $70,000 from Save the Music. Other benefactors include the California Music Project, and its $20,000 annual gift; free lessons for teachers on recorder and guitar, the latter instruments donated by Taylor Guitars; and a generous bequest of $75,000 worth of band instruments from the U.S. Marines.
For Childress-Evans the key to keeping music and the arts alive has been “leadership.” Hers, that of her small staff, and school principals. On the job, she learned to listen “to what principals wanted.” She asked questions. What is your schedule? How and when could music fit in? “We looked at articulation, what the middle schools need from the elementary schools,” so that students are adequately prepared for the next level of instruction. The district could not be served, she says, with “one size fits all. Trying to push the same program on every school didn’t work.”
Voila, the arts — and music especially, the most popular program — have steamed back into port. And with their return, a vexing irony. The visual and performing arts budget during the past six years has slowly dwindled: its unrestricted funds (non-salary costs) in 2004–2005 were $474,140. The amount now is $188,921. Full-time equivalency (which pays for full- and part-time teachers) rose from 31.8 to 34.2 FTE. “It’s gone up,” Childress-Evans says, “because the number of students we serve has gone up.”