Serving the Field, Gaining Insight: Reflections from a Peer Review Panelist

By Jenny Wei
School & Teacher Programs Director, Palo Alto Art Center

As if spring isn’t a busy enough season for those of us who work with schools, this year I added serving on a California Arts Council grant panel for the Artists in Schools program to my to-do list. Eighty-one applications and three days in a Sacramento meeting room later, I am certain it was a good decision.

I wanted to be part of the peer-review process because it was clear that it would directly connect to my work at the Palo Alto Art Center and it would give me insights and experience to help my career.

For so many museums, grants provide vital revenue that, combined with individual gifts, enables us to serve our audiences. I have been involved in the receiving-end: finding funders, writing requests, and delivering final reports. But by being part of a peer-review panel, I felt I could take my grant-development skills to the next level. Our panel reviewed many applications, so I saw first-hand what was helpful to reviewers (like organizing information in bullets or adding notes to clarify your budget spreadsheet) and what stumbling blocks kept programs from fully telling their stories.

It seemed that in every proposal there was a tiny tweak that would add value to the Artists in Schools program I oversee at the Palo Alto Art Center. Ask partner schools to post a link to your program’s website—of course!  Send parents e-mail invitations to events in addition to paper invitations—why didn’t we think of that? I felt as though reading the grant proposals was like crowd-sourcing smart ideas from across the state.

As a wake-up call, I was disappointed to realize that my organization’s artist compensation was at a lower rate for our area. This was important for me to see, and I felt empowered to take my new perspective to our leadership to address this issue.

Aside from these specific tweaks and adjustments, I came away with two takeaways that were front-and-center for me:

  • There is no one way to be an outstanding applicant. We found great examples of programs working with completely different age groups—high school groups creating full-fledged productions and kindergartners showing the first glimmer of creative accomplishment. Also, as I didn’t grow up in California, I was intrigued by the diversity of California’s communities and the programs finely-tuned to serve them.
  • California’s teaching artists are doing awesome things for schools. It was energizing to think of each grant award both serving students and helping the livelihood of a teaching artist. We are so fortunate to have such wonderful educators in our communities!

Of course, I am also eager to rewrite a few sentences in our own grant applications to make our proposals just a little bit clearer for future panelists.

From the small program tweaks to the career experience, I took so much away from volunteering for my California Arts Council panel. Think about signing up next winter when the Arts Council issues their call for panelists. I’m sure you will also find it a rewarding experience.


JennyWeiJenny Wei is the School & Teacher Programs Director for the Palo Alto Art Center where she oversees the Cultural Kaleidoscope school outreach program. She came to the Art Center with a background as a museum educator, with several years and several positions at the Smithsonian Institution (most recently, the National Museum of American History) and one year teaching elementary students as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Yilan, Taiwan. She received her BA in Art History and Masters in the Art of Teaching in museum education from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Featured Photo: Student artwork on display at the Palo Alto Art Center

Arts in the Post-No Child Left Behind World: Watching ESSA Carefully

By Donn K. Harris, Chair, California Arts Council
Executive and Artistic Director, Oakland School for the Arts

The 2001 federal educational law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a skillfully marketed attempt to balance all sides of the educational equation: for schools and districts, incremental gains in achievement were acceptable, as long as all subgroups gained at least the minimum required; low-performing schools were both stigmatized and forced into supports simultaneously; cohort groups were created in some states so that one could compare oneself against schools deemed “similar” based on transitory rates and socioeconomic data.

There were new credential requirements, a new designation called “Highly Qualified,” and in some cases teachers with credentials were not “Highly Qualified” depending on whether they received their credentials through coursework or testing — high school science in particular began demanding specialized credentials in Physics, Biology and Chemistry as opposed to the more general “Physical” and “Life” Science designations of the past. We seemed to be equating rigor with specialization, and achievement with test scores, and at times words and titles seemed to overwhelm reality. One school I visited had students enrolled in Calculus who could not even pronounce the word, but their boast was: every kid takes four years of math here.

The plan began to dissolve into a morass of regulation and compliance fear. Lists began to be published in local media as to who was in “Program Improvement” (the category for schools who did not meet their expected yearly gains), and when the time came to reauthorize the bill in 2006, things stalled, but the schools kept up with NCLB lingo and process for nine more years, an extended stay by any measure in accountability limbo, and by that time in California over 70% of the schools were in Program Improvement status.

My own school was a California Distinguished School one year, in Program Improvement the next. Then, finally, in 2015, Congress adopted a new law designated the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), billed as a deeper, more demanding curriculum that replaced the rote with the thoughtful, dictation with facilitation, commonly-accepted facts with challenging questions and then deeper questions. Mathematics was to be a communicative, collaborative subject, student teams approximating engineering teams with their creative energy, and the world seemed new again.

But what about the arts?

Much of the analysis around ESSA praised its arts friendliness and the use of the phrase “a well-rounded education” as evidence of that. Maybe there is some kind of code here, but that in and of itself is a problem: Why are we speaking in code as if hiding some dirty or dangerous secret? An even more intractable problem than language is the way school days are constructed and how artists are used in classrooms and other school settings: There is rarely the sense that the arts are on equal footing with the academic pursuits. Being special and different has its advantages most of the time, and the arts are branded as that no matter how many times someone screams “But they are core!”– and in a bureaucracy divergence and uniqueness are rarely seen as desirable qualities. So in some environments the arts are at a disadvantage from the start: The strange and unexpected behaviors of a young artist are not something we are comfortable with in schools, and when we give these young artists full rein to create, we often have an output that is profane, enraged, the opposite of tame. Are we prepared to unleash the demons that lurk beneath the surfaces of our children? Not to scare you off, but the arts may do that. Are schools as much places of truth as the church, or the community center, or the streets for that matter?

Not usually. Schools are places of convention. The word appropriate is probably used in schools more than anywhere else –- we expect young people to do the right thing for the time and place, and in schools that means to play to the middle ground, to community standards. Schools are the American social institution that has changed the least in the past 200 years, technology notwithstanding. Truth is often painful, and deep, and in the arts it knows few boundaries: There have been symbols in student art work that caused me to reveal the pieces only in private showings, with someone there to explain the themes, to prove the adults understand the limits and have found creative ways to express that. I once changed the title of a poem or was about to deny the student the right to read it publicly. We don’t censor, but we do control.

So will ESSA even bring this to bear in our schools?

Perhaps I am too hopeful, but I do lead an arts school, where every day something extraordinary is created. If many more schools are able to unleash student creativity, we could be awash in some kind of unpredictable youth movement. It seems we are already on the verge of one as it is.  Will the ’20s be the new ’60s?

The real test will come when the Smarter Balanced assessments have built a few years of credibility and we start to look at schools that are struggling. Will the arts be cut right away? Will it be NCLB 2.0, with schools pushing even science and social studies into a corner to improve reading and math scores? Today I heard an awful thing: After just getting used to a robust economy and rising funding levels for education, there’s a new prediction that a downturn is on the way and we’d better build a nest egg, or remain cautious and wary even with the current high revenues.

ESSA is bound to be tested in these next few years, and the arts should be a measuring stick of our commitment to the new principles of creative expression and cultural relevance. The hope on my end is that failing schools are given more art resources to stimulate children and build engagement and investment in learning, rather than falling back on the ages-old fallacy that NCLB embodied: If you’re failing at something you do four hours a day, just add a fifth hour and everything should be fine, and if it isn’t, heads will roll. And it’s so much cheaper than keeping that art class going: There are no paints, or clay, or stage props, or special teaching artists –- just the usual books and paper, and maybe if we all try a bit harder it will click. History tells us probably not, though, and for me this is the test of ESSA: When the going gets tough, in achievement measures and financially, what is going to happen? The Every Student Succeeds Act is tied to the Common Core Curriculum, and the idea is that we are going to go deeper into subject matter, probe more aggressively, demand that students express a point-of-view. How much will that be worth when some data point is not reached, or when finances are low, or when the content of the expression becomes unnerving and controversial?

With NCLB, we never even got that far, so controversy itself would be a sign of progress. These are the things we should be watching. If the values are truly different in this new world of ESSA, the solutions to problems should look far different than they have up to this point. Maybe the student with a poor vocabulary will be assigned a part in an August Wilson play, and pure emotion and the adrenaline created by movement and purpose will nail home words he otherwise would never have understood.


 

donn_harris 

Donn K. Harris is the Chair of the California Arts Council and the Executive and Artistic Director of Oakland School for the Arts. He also sits on the leadership council of the statewide arts education coalition Create CA and is a member of the Board of Directors of the national Arts Schools Network.

#MyCreativeCA Video: Malashock Dance “Math in Motion”

We’ve created a series of short-form, documentary videos that celebrate creative expression in California. The videos follow art programming across California, from rural towns to some of the state’s largest cities, which are making positive impacts in our communities.

STEM + Arts = STEAM. In this week’s #MyCreativeCA video, watch San Diego’s Malashock Dance Company teach students math through movement at a local Title 1 elementary school.

#MyCreativeCA #CAarts40 http://www.arts.ca.gov

#MyCreativeCA Video: Destiny Arts

We’ve created a series of short-form, documentary videos that celebrate creative expression in California. The series of videos follow art programming across California, from rural towns to some of the state’s largest cities, which are making positive impacts in communities.

The first video in our series comes from the Bay Area. Oakland-based dance organization, Destiny Arts first received California Arts Council grant in 1989. They currently receive support through our Artists in Schools and JUMP StArts programs.

#MyCreativeCA #CAarts40 http://www.arts.ca.gov

Video Series: My Creative CA

We recently traveled across California to film some of the inspiring people making an impact in their communities through art and creative expression. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be sharing a new video here each week. Here’s a sneak peek that was previewed at our 40th anniversary celebration at the historic Crest Theatre in Sacramento on Wednesday, January 27, 2016.


As our host Annette Bening stated on stage at the Crest Theatre, “From its beginnings in 1976 to today the Arts Council has demonstrated why government support of the arts is so important. Public support is what brings the arts, with all their power to heal and inspire, to rural communities, towns large and small, blighted neighborhoods, struggling schools, prisons and hospitals, and everywhere the arts can make a difference – from Skid Row to symphony hall. The arts are an invaluable policy asset and prosperity generator for California. The creativity of our state sets us apart and gives California a special place in people’s imaginations.”

From the role of art in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) to preserving traditional and folk arts, this video shows the wide reach of California Arts Council’s grantees and partnerships to advance arts in California for everyone.

Featured California nonprofits include:

The videos were produced by Los Angeles-based, For Example Media.

‪#‎MyCreativeCA‬ ‪#‎CAarts40‬