Why we’re thankful for the arts – 4 benefits, many blogs

Without a doubt, the California Arts Council has plenty to be thankful for. We’re thankful to Gov. Brown and our state Legislature for valuing the arts. We’re thankful to our Council members, our staff, and our grantees for their tireless work. We’re thankful to arts advocates and donors to the Keep Arts in Schools Fund for their indelible contributions.

The list goes on … but without the arts themselves, we wouldn’t be here.

With that in mind this Thanksgiving season, we took a trip down memory lane, browsing this year’s previous blog entries, and found a cornucopia of examples of the power of the arts. Here are just a few of the reasons why we’re thankful:

1. The arts boost our economy.

2. The arts promote cultural awareness and understanding.

3. The arts teach.

4. The arts help to heal.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, from the California Arts Council family to you and yours.

(Photo credit: Center for World Music)

A celebration of Arts in Education Week with grantee and guest blogger LA Phil

It’s National Arts in Education Week! What better time to call out the incredible work done by our grantees to fuel the creative minds of California’s youth?

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and its Youth Orchestra LA program became a California Arts Council grantee just this year. The award was made possible by a funding increase that allowed us to build upon our existing Artists in Schools program, taking arts education beyond the standard school day. The Extension branch of the Artists in Schools grant program awarded funding, for the first time, to arts programming held after school but off school premises, in the summer or in a community setting.

Below, Vice President of Educational Initiatives Gretchen Nielsen and recent YOLA graduate Josue May explain the program and its impact:

Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) is the signature education initiative of LA Phil Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, launched in 2007. YOLA offers after-school music instruction in three underserved Los Angeles neighborhoods: South L.A., the Rampart District, and East L.A.  The program is built on the strength of some remarkable partnerships: the L.A. Department of Parks and Recreation, the Harmony Project, Heart of Los Angeles, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis and the L.A. County Office of Education. All partners share programmatic and financial responsibility.

Each site provides free, intensive music instruction, as well as social-service support, academic support, and leadership development. Students are together 16 hours per week after school, and YOLA’s intensity enables its success as a community.

CAC_enewsletter_YOLA

We’ve noticed once YOLA students reach high school, they become more self-reflective of their role and impact in developing a community within YOLA. They’re recognizing YOLA’s place in the larger music education ecosystem, and that people are looking at this kind of program as a potential model to transform music education — one that has the power to create social change by combining aspects of youth development, access and equity, and high level music training. YOLA musicians are the best advocates for this work — they join the LA Phil on international tours to teach and perform, and present about their experiences in YOLA. As alumni, they return to YOLA as camp counselors and mentors for our summer programs. They are the future ambassadors for change in the world of music education and beyond. I couldn’t be more proud.

Funding from the California Arts Council is a vote of confidence that programs like YOLA are important, and that all kids deserve access to music education.

With that in mind, I’d love to introduce you to Josue May, one of YOLA’s recent graduates (pictured above, wearing purple and playing the trombone). Josue joined YOLA at EXPO in its first year a decade ago, and just graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. He’ll attend CalArts in the fall to study music. He recently answered some questions about his time in YOLA and his upcoming plans.

—Gretchen Nielsen, Vice President, Educational Initiatives

 You and about 20 other YOLA musicians played the national anthem at Dodger Stadium on July 5. What was that like?

I’m a huge Dodgers fan — and I’d never been down on the field before — so it was really cool. We didn’t get to do a sound check, though. There was a full second delay between when we’d play a note and when we’d hear it through the sound system. We just had to really focus. Afterward I also saw Yasiel Puig nearby, talking to the manager.

You started out playing percussion. How’d you wind up on trombone?

In the fourth grade, my music teacher demonstrated different instruments for us, and I thought the trombone was really funny. I’ve been playing it ever since. I really like how it stands out. In the orchestra, it controls the level of emotion and portrays a lot of different feelings. It also adds a really majestic tone to the orchestra.

How did you settle on the California Institute of the Arts for college?

I applied to a few other music schools. But CalArts — besides being convenient and close to home — has the LA Phil’s associate principal trombonist teaching there. They also have a wide curriculum of other styles of music. For instance, I played in a big band, but I haven’t studied jazz, and that’s something I want to start doing.

When you started at YOLA 10 years ago, did you imagine you’d be headed to music school?

I put this in my college essay: I’ve known I wanted to be a musician since I was 7 or 8 years old. I’ve always been really drawn to it. When I got into [Los Angeles County High School for the Arts], I realized that everybody else took private lessons, which I’d thought was really rare. It led me to appreciate the opportunities YOLA gave me even more.

Around the state in 365 days with California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia

danag_3

This week marks one year since Dana Gioia began his adventure as “poetry’s public servant” in the Golden State. In that time, the state poet laureate has taken his role as advocate for the art of poetry across the state quite literally, making it a point to visit every county in California.

Earlier this week, Gioia took the time to answer some of our questions—about poetry, his position, where he’s been, and where he’s headed next.

One year in—how has your experience as California’s poet laureate met your expectations? Has anything surprised you?

PR_Ventura_Oct2016_9I started with the huge assumption that there would be an audience for poetry everywhere in the state. Indeed there was. What surprised me was how big and varied it was—no matter where we went. We got big audiences in the smallest towns. There was also a wonderful mix of people. There were, of course, the local poets, musicians, and teachers we expected. But we also got mayors, ranchers, shopkeepers, accountants, almond farmers, veterans and veterinarians. The ages ranged from newborn to near centenarians.

Where have you done your poetry events?

I try to meet in the public library, but for many small towns it doesn’t have enough space, so we also meet in taverns, churches, galleries, museums, and parks. I went to a jazz club in Oakland and the National Cemetery in San Francisco. I go wherever the community invites me.

Was the program mostly you reading your own poetry?

No. Everywhere I go I invite local writers, musicians, and students to participate. It becomes a local celebration for poetry and creativity. I also try to end every event with a question-and-answer period so we all can have a public conversation about literature and literacy.

You still have one year left in your term. You have covered a lot of ground in your 58-county tour. You’ve visited 44 counties so far. What are the plans for the rest of your term?

Well, I have to reach those last 14 counties. Next week I go back to USC for the fall semester. That limits how much I can travel in the next few months. I will then finish up the tour in the spring. Once I reach the finish line with county 58, I will start over.

Why do you need to visit counties more than once?

PR_Mendocino_Feb 18 2017_4I’ve done almost 100 events so far, because it is important to visit the large counties several times to reach different communities. Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million people. That requires lots of events. The same goes for the Bay Area. When I was asked to read a poem at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Presidio’s National Cemetery, I immediately accepted because the gathering served a different audience from the venues I had already visited in San Francisco. I also knew that poetry was important for the troops, veterans, and families on such a solemn occasion.

You’re a native Californian. Having traveled to some lesser known and less populated parts of the state, have you gained new perspective on the state and what it means to be a Californian?

Absolutely! I thought I knew the state pretty well, but these trips have been a continuous discovery. I now realize how little I knew about the eastern half of the state, especially up pr_kern_dec2016_3.jpgin the Sierra Nevadas. Those counties are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are also central to the state’s history. There were also a lot of towns I knew only from driving through them on the way to somewhere else. How different it is to meet local people and spend a day or two there.

I just finished spending two weeks with BBC, which is doing a documentary on the statewide tour. I asked that the show only be partially about me. I wanted it to be mostly about the California that the British don’t know—the mountains, the Central Valley, the desert, and the north coast.

What makes a poem good?

There are many ways in which a poem can be good. Mostly, a poem works by shaping speech into a kind of song. A poem needs to be beautiful, memorable, and expressive. By “beautiful” I don’t mean merely “pretty” or superficially attractive. Beauty is a kind of heightened perception in which we recognize the deeper forms of reality—the way, for example, the shape of a tree tells about the light, the soil, and the winds around it.

What advice do you have for the uninitiated who may view poetry as pretentious or irrelevant?

I tell people just to relax and listen. Don’t feel as if you are in a classroom. Pretend you’re listening to music in a club. If I have learned anything on this tour, it is that most people enjoy poetry.

One last question, just for fun. If you were hosting an intimate dinner party, and could invite any three people, living or dead, who would they be, and why?

Honestly, I’d invite my mom, my dad, and my late Uncle Ted, because I miss them. But if I had to exclude family, I’d ask William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde. I’d open up a bottle of good California wine and then listen to the conversation.

A gathering of young poets at the Yuba Theatre

To see more pictures from Gioia’s travels and learn more about past and upcoming events, visit http://capoetlaureate.net.

Blog bite: The power of poetry

Online news source Circa put the spotlight on poetry this week, publishing a story that called out the work of Street Poets Inc. The L.A.-based California Arts Council grantee has a firm grasp on both rhyme and reason: Dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk and incarcerated youth, the organization inspires its participants to find their voices through the art of poetry and chart a new course toward a better future.

Street Poets Inc. is funded in part by the California Arts Council JUMP StArts grant program, supporting arts education and artist-in-residence programs for youth engaged in the juvenile justice system, in the classroom, after school, or as a social service or in an incarceration setting.

We’re proud to support the work of Street Poets Inc.! Read the full story here and check out the video below:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fcirca%2Fvideos%2F1424937644239623%2F&show_text=0&width=560

Guest Post: They Call It Legacy

By Donn K. Harris, Chair of the California Arts Council and Executive Director, ArtsCenter, San Francisco Unified School District

Perhaps it’s our age, and I won’t out my esteemed colleague and friend Craig Watson here, but I am sixty-one years old, and the word legacy seems to be cropping up everywhere these days. It’s often used to describe someone’s motivation for an act they committed, as in, ‘They’re thinking about their legacy.’ Few of us get the luxury to to do that, as the world swirls by at such a hectic pace that we’re lucky if we get to the end of our time with an organization and can stop and breathe for a minute and say: ‘That was a good time. We left our mark.’

IMG_3639
Donn Harris and Craig Watson at the State Capitol.

Craig Watson, the Director of the California Arts Council for the past 5 ½ years,  who is leaving the agency effective March 31, has left his mark.

He  has left it on all of us who have worked with him. He has left his mark on the California Arts Council itself, on California – and on the United States. That’s not coming from me. No less an authority on the national arts scene than Barry Hessenius placed Craig Watson on the 2015 list of the 50 Most Powerful and Influential Leaders in the Nonprofit Arts in America. That in itself is a legacy-maker, and here are some of the factors that went into Craig being placed on that prestigious list:

  • The agency’s budget, counting all revenue streams, went from $5 million in 2013 to almost $25 million in 2017. That’s a quintupled infusion, and the way the CAC was able to craft new programs and hire staff and keep the back office sane is a testament to teamwork and good administration. 
  • The new programs themselves – for veterans, independent artists, large-scale partnerships, cultural districts, public media, juvenile justice, adult incarceration facilities, turnaround arts schools, Common Core education initiatives, the support of newly formed cultural organizations, and research projects – represent almost a tripling of program offerings – a staggering feat. The breadth of the new arts programs, their visibility and influence, is unmistakable. From food and dishware artistry in the north to youth photography programs on the Mexican border, the CAC has become more than relevant – we’re the creative lifeline for many communities. 
  • If any time an artist puts a brush to canvas or a bow to strings represents a statement of sorts, any leader in a state as large as California would have a hard time pointing to a theme or a unifying principle to the work produced. Given that, the thematic coherence to the last four years of arts production funded by the CAC is impressive, and reflective of our state’s priorities:
      • Work extolling our bounteous natural resources and physical beauty: …with many projects having to do with water conservation, also valued by the governor. The artistic Renaissance surrounding the restored channels of the LA River is only one example of this significant movement; the Santa Cruz River walk is another, and the Mokelumne (90% of Oakland’s drinking water!) was the basis for a 2014 Amador County Arts grant. 
      • Partnerships and collective action: Creative California Communities, Cultural Pathways, Cultural Districts – the power of the individual becomes an exponential factor in these well-crafted programs. Our State and Local Partnership Network puts the County Arts agencies in charge of their local creative product. 
      • Social Justice and Equitable Outcomes: Arts in Corrections, Juvenile Justice, Artists in Schools, Veterans in the Arts: a clear theme of compassion, vision and a brighter future. Almost all of our grants go to low-budget organizations, many are store-front non-profits, making the CAC the main supporter of grassroots arts activity in the state – keeping traditions alive and starting new ones.

In 5 ½ years, building on a strong but underfunded and understaffed base, Craig went about the business of carefully reconstructing a framework and a culture that had been worn down by economic difficulties and competing priorities.  When a $2 million one-time windfall came to the CAC for the 2014 cycle through the efforts of Council members, the signal that the Council was roaring back became clear. New programs emerged, new energies were unleashed, and that was followed by a significant increase to our base funding, and then more one-time funds. Barely able to appreciate the accomplishments, Staff and Council worked tirelessly to do right by California and to exemplify the vision of the Governor and the Legislature with an artistic output and collective action worthy of the State of California.

When Craig’s final day comes about at the end of this month, we will not be saying goodbye to our colleague and friend. His influence, his deft hand at all matters sensitive and subtle, the fantastically talented and devoted staff he has brought on to serve us for decades to come – these will be constant reminders of what Craig accomplished on our behalf. And his vision will surely surface in other ways: the arts community in California will pull him back for something.

B7RLoJVCIAAe0Id
Donn Harris and Craig Watson with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and NEA Chair Jane Chu at Youth Radio in Oakland.

I was fortunate enough to work with Craig for three years beginning in my first Council term, with two years serving as the Chair of the 11-member Council. We are not an easy bunch, and Craig handled us deftly. He got what he could out of each of us, and had his tenure been longer he would have elevated us even more. We traveled together, made decisions together, expanded the reach of our message, stumbled through a challenge or two, learned from each other (more me from him), and have come to this place where a transition is in the making. We will have time to reflect and celebrate. We will have time to close out this chapter and to appreciate the accomplishments that took place with Craig at the helm.

IMG_0259
CAC Council and Staff selfie from a recent planning retreat.

In closing, I would like to pay Craig Watson the ultimate compliment. Always in the limelight, with every action scrutinized, analyzed, critiqued from angles that were so unique and unexpected that we were often in amazement if not shock, Craig managed to maintain grace under intense pressure, kindness when others may have offered something less than that, cool professionalism when many would have retreated or overreacted. And behind closed doors, when discussions were necessarily private or confidential, when so often we hear the preface: ‘Off the record . . .’ followed by some not-for-prime-time statement, I can unequivocally say that Craig Watson never headed in that direction. What he said in those moments was the same thing he would have said had he been at a podium before hundreds of people. It’s called doing the right thing – a rarity these days.

Leaving on his own terms, taking his time to wind down and prepare the CAC for his successor, able to appreciate the accolades that will come his way – we should all move on so gracefully. Even in his departure, Craig Watson has set an example for us, and we could do no better than to appreciate his tenure, celebrate his time as our state arts leader, and be inspired by a man who can say to himself, “job well done,” and know that we agree with him fully.


donn_harrisDonn K. Harris is the Chair of the California Arts Council and Executive Director, ArtsCenter, San Francisco Unified School District.

“40 Stories” Spotlight: Alliance for California Traditional Arts

To celebrate our 40th Anniversary, we asked forty of our amazing grantees, past and present, to tell the story of their work and their relationship with the California Arts Council. Throughout this anniversary year, we’ll be sharing excerpts from our special publication 40 Stories, 40 Years here on the blog. You can view the complete collection at this link.


Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Statewide

By Amy Kitchener, Executive Director

Year of first CAC Grant: 1997

Preserving Rich Cultural Traditions

Since its inception in 1997, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) has supported, advanced, and curated the rich work of California traditional artists of many disciplines, from cowboy poetry and African American quilting to Hmong qeej musical performance and Cahuilla bird song and dance. ACTA promotes and supports ways for cultural traditions to thrive now and into the future by investing in partnerships with hundreds of artists and groups. Our work is located in low-income, immigrant, refugee, and communities of color throughout the state of California and we’ve built a reputation focused on social change through grantmaking, capacity and leadership development, technical assistance, and bilingual program development.

Folk Arts and a Statewide Apprenticeship Program

ACTA got its start at the legendary CAC Asilomar Conference, where CAC brought together leaders and practitioners of the folk and traditional arts field to meet and consider what a statewide, coordinated, traditional folk arts effort might look like. At that historic meeting, we named ourselves the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and started work to reinstate a state apprenticeship program for California. We presented a resolution to
the conference attendees who embraced this initiative. Later that year, the CAC awarded ACTA’s first grants: $75,000 for a state apprenticeship program (matched by the National Endowment for the Arts) and $50,000 to compile and manage a database on statewide services and artists in the traditional folk arts field (also matched by NEA). ACTA’s origins are tied to the California Arts Council’s leadership as a convener and capacity builder
of the multicultural arts development field.

Leverage in the Lean Years

The CAC’s two initial significant investments launched ACTA as an organization and provided the resources to establish statewide services. The CAC continued its support for these initial programs on an annual basis until the drastic statewide arts cuts came in 2003. At that point, ACTA, now established as an independent nonprofit, had attracted other funders and was able to leverage CAC’s initial investments many times over. Today, ACTA has grown to be a $1.7M organization with 4 offices, in Fresno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz, and a staff of 8. ACTA’s status as the CAC’s designated partner in serving California’s the folk and traditional arts field has been a significant lever in growing the organization.

 
View our ‪#MyCreativeCA video showcasing the ACTA’s work preserving the unique art forms of California’s diverse cultures. Some of these art forms are native to our state; others have traveled here from every corner of the globe.


staff_amy_kitchenerAMY KITCHENER, Executive Director, co-founded the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) in 1997.  Understanding California’s unique position as the nation’s epicenter for diverse cultural and multi-national communities, ACTA’s work has focused on social change through grantmaking, capacity and leadership development, technical assistance, and bilingual program development.  Trained as a public folklorist with an M. A. from UCLA, Amy has piloted participatory cultural asset mapping in neglected and rural areas of the state and consults with other organizations and across sectors on this method of discovery and inclusion of community voices.  She continues to serve as a consultant for many national organizations and has taken part in two U.S.-China Intangible Cultural Heritage exchanges. She has published on a variety subjects involving California folklife, including immigrant arts training and transmission, and Asian American folk arts.  Amy and husband Hugo Morales are the proud parents of twin boys who dance and sing with regularity.

View the complete 40 Stories, 40 Years collection at this link.

“40 Stories” Spotlight: California Lawyers for the Arts

To celebrate our 40th Anniversary, we asked forty of our amazing grantees, past and present, to tell the story of their work and their relationship with the California Arts Council. Throughout this anniversary year, we’ll be sharing excerpts from our special publication 40 Stories, 40 Years here on the blog. You can view the complete collection at this link.

Editor’s Note: California Lawyers for the Arts will hold their annual Artistic License Awards on May 17 in Sacramento, honoring Marcy Friedman, Senator Mark Leno, Art Luna, Senator Jim Nielsen, The Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus, and Ali Youssefi.


California Lawyers for the Arts

By Alma Robinson, Executive Director

Year of first CAC Grant: 1976

Legal Services, Educational Programs

California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA) was founded as Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts in 1974, the third “lawyers for the arts” organization established in the US (after New York and Chicago). CAC funding provided recognition that our legal services and educational programs were worthy of support from the State of California.

Our early funding from the CAC, which required matching grants, also provided leverage for additional support from foundations and other public agencies. For example, our mediation program—the first in the nation for artists and arts organizations—was able to garner support from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. This program became the model for similar programs that we helped to start at art/law organizations throughout the country.

Expanding Reach, Building Relationships

As a result of the CAC’s rigorous application process, we improved our organizational practices in budgeting, strategic planning, personnel management and program design. Knowing that the organization would be reviewed by a panel representing peer organizations around the state inspired us to strive for excellence in our business practices as well as in service delivery. Our organization also benefitted from participating in a series of CAC convenings that brought together arts service organizations, state/local partners and other arts leaders from around California. Through CAC leadership, we built strong relationships with Southern California colleagues who encouraged us to expand our services to Los Angeles. The CAC has been our most reliable funder since the inception of our organization in 1974.

Operating Support Sustains the Core

We applaud the CAC for providing arts organizations with general operating support, which is under-valued by many philanthropic organizations. As a grantee in the Statewide Networks program, we have used the funds to sustain our core programs and services that provide “infrastructure” for the arts community. In the past year, 1,617 individuals participated in 81 CLA  educational events, 1,300 persons participated in mediation services, and 636 clients were matched with attorneys. We have also worked successfully with the CAC to develop a strong platform for public awareness of the value of the arts in solving our state’s most pressing issues, including environmental concerns, public safety, youth development, and over-incarceration.


AlmaRobinsonAlma Robinson has worked for the California Lawyers for the Arts since 1981. An attorney, she was the founding director of CLA’s Arts Arbitration and Mediation Services and initiated Arts Resolution Services, a national network of art/law organizations providing mediation services modeled on CLA’s. program, as well as CLA’s Arts and Community Development Program, which provides job training in the arts for disadvantaged youth and became the model for similar programs in Texas and Washington, D.C. She was a founding board member of California Arts Advocates and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

View the complete 40 Stories, 40 Years collection at this link.

Losing Our Voice

When Diane Golling stumbled across a job posting for an Executive Secretary at the California Arts Council, she couldn’t resist applying. It sounded like the perfect “day job” for someone who had always supplemented her life in the arts with a series of office gigs. It was 2006 and she was working a part-time civil service job while writing historical romance novels. “In the interview,” Diane recalls, “I asked if I could do the Arts Council job part time.” According to Diane, “They laughed and laughed.”

She took the job anyway.

For nearly ten years, Diane has devoted to the California Arts Council a considerable chunk of what would otherwise be prime writing time. She plunged in with enthusiasm, volunteered for several roles that became permanent additions to her responsibilities, and made herself indispensable as the agency’s proofreader, copy editor, and social media maven—for which she received a promotion to Administrative Assistant, since “Executive Secretary” no longer described her job. She brought a unique skill set to the CAC. Her background in acting as well as writing—”It’s all about storytelling, isn’t it?”—gave her a gift for creating characters. And one of those characters is the friendly, helpful, slightly cheeky persona you encounter on the California Arts Council’s Facebook and Twitter feeds.

“Diane has been the voice of this agency,” says Director Craig Watson. She crafts the social media postings and is the final set of eyes on everything we write, from blog entries to annual reports—and, come to think of it, that’s even her voice on our automatic answering machine. But Diane says that the CAC’s voice is not really hers. It’s just her interpretation of what this agency is, at its heart: Human.

diane age 8
Diane on the air

Diane was a childhood bookworm whose love of language and story moved her from reading to writing at an early age. She read aloud with such expression that the local NBC station put her on the air as a newscaster, reporting on local elementary school happenings. This led her to discover acting, which she pursued for the next quarter century or so, until she married an aerospace engineer who requested that she find a creative outlet that would keep her home in the evenings. She immediately switched gears from one form of storytelling to another. In the ensuing decade she produced eight novels and a novella, all published by Signet Books, a division of Penguin Random House, under her maiden name, Diane Farr.

Diane’s last day in the office will be April 15. She is leaving her job to resume her career, and although she claims she will miss us terribly, she admits that she looks forward to days spent drinking coffee, going for long walks, and pounding out her next novel. She will also be recording some of her books for Audible, accepting speaking engagements, attending writers’ conferences, and traveling with her husband.  We wish her great good fortune and much happiness.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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: Piece by Piece

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

Here’s the final installment of our #MyCreativeCA series, and we think you’ll love it as much as we do. Piece by Piece combines the dignity of work with the focus and joy of art, employing Skid Row residents in mosaic projects large and small.

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