The California Alliance for Arts Education, a Hewlett Foundation grant recipient, has worked for more than three decades to bring arts education to every student in the state’s schools. Until recently, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 commitment of $105 million for arts education and the promise of more to come, there had been little reason to believe that goal was in reach. Recently, a member of the Alliance had the opportunity to witness one California community, Stockton, seize the opportunity that the new funding offers.

It’s 5:00 p.m. on a cold Wednesday evening in early December. It’s reasonable to assume that most folks on the road in the Central Valley city of Stockton are headed home to a warm meal after a hard day’s work. But not the members of Stockton Unified’s arts education team, who are rapidly filling the meeting room at St. Mark’s Plaza.

Look around the room and you see the faces of roughly fifty teachers, parents, community arts workers, school administrators, and tonight, even the new superintendent of the Stockton school district, Dr. Jack McLaughlin. Most have come because they want to be here, just as they’ve been coming for two years now, accepting the invitation of the Stockton Unified School District Arts Coordinator, Dean Gorby, to help formulate a districtwide plan for arts education. With no state funding to support an arts program, progress has been piecemeal at best.

Dreaming Bigger

But now, for the first time in a long time, they can dream bigger. In 2006, the California legislature passed Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal to include $105 million in ongoing funds for sequential, standards-aligned visual and performing arts instruction in K-12 classes. This new funding gives Stockton and school districts throughout the state the opportunity to implement some of the strategies they’ve been contemplating for years. No one needs to convince this crowd that their opinions can make a difference in the quality of education their children receive: that’s why they’re in this meeting room.

And they’re here because they share a conviction that exposure to the arts can change peoples’ lives. Listen to them talk and you understand that this shared belief comes from their own experiences growing up. It’s about the first time a ten-year-old girl was taken on a school bus to see a play, having never been in a theater before. She sat there, overwhelmed by what she was feeling as the drama unfolded onstage, and then it occurred to her: “I could do this.” That girl has gone on to become a parent and a teacher, and she wants to make sure that other children have that same opportunity to expand their horizons.

Hands are going up around the room. A parent tempers her excitement about the new funding with concerns that it’s not enough to go around. Arts education funding has been declining steadily in California for the past thirty years to the point where some schools have no arts education left. How do you turn that around with an investment that amounts to $15 a child? Where do you spend it first? Do you hire new arts teachers, or do you invest in professional development for classroom teachers? What if the funding stops coming? What happens then?

Another parent voices her concern that teachers are already overwhelmed by the load they’re carrying in the classroom. He says a passion for the arts can only be conveyed by artists. “Are we voting for an arts experience or for arts education?” In other words, is this money best spent on a trip to a concert or on bringing the experience of the arts into the classroom?

Still another parent is excited about arts being included in the school day, but worries that expectations of testing will eventually dominate in this subject, as in others. “I want the arts to be something that is seen as fulfilling unto itself,” she says.

A New Teaching Tool

A teacher voices concern about the pressure she feels to deliver those larger academic expectations. “My principal won’t let me take time for professional development for the arts. It’s all about those core subjects.”

Another teacher describes her positive experience with a federally funded program that brought together kindergarten through third-grade teachers and a districtwide music/fine arts teacher to develop and deliver arts lessons that meet state standards. The program, called PAVALA TUTTI, for Performing Arts Visual Arts Language Arts Together, was designed to address the specific needs of students attending three high-poverty schools in the district. “The arts are essential to everything these kids are learning,” she says. “How they think critically, creatively, how they take initiative, and how they feel about themselves.”

An arts education teacher who’s moved here from another school district offers her perspective: “I realized after trying to go it alone with my enthusiasm for the arts that it takes a team effort to make these things happen.”

Dean Gorby, presiding over the discussion with a mix of pride and impatience, underscores the mood of the group. “Education without the fine arts is an incomplete education,” he says. “The inclusion of a quality fine arts education program serves the highest educational interests of the public in general-students, parents, teachers, administrators, and legislators.”

Superintendent McLaughlin sits quietly in the back of the room, absorbing the conversation. He’s new to Stockton and is clearly impressed by the level of commitment in the room. He encourages the group to continue its work. “The passion in this room for the arts is what I believe in,” he says. “We need to find a way to make this happen in our community.”

It’s worth noting that in November the Stockton Board of Education adopted an arts education policy that all students should experience, perform, produce, and appreciate the arts, and that it is committed to providing the essential resources to support quality teaching and learning in the arts-even in times of budget cutbacks.

After airing their opinions, team members divide into smaller groups, each assigned to make recommendations on a specific aspect of the district’s plans for arts education, from professional development, to curriculum, to student assessment. As is the nature of the democratic process, individual passions must now reconcile with the will of the majority, not to mention the expressed intent of the state funding. The groups submit their recommendations-to be reviewed at the next team meeting-bundle up, and head home for a late supper.

One of the key recommendations of the California Alliance for Arts Education in implementing the new funding is that local plans for arts education need to be formulated with the participation of key stakeholders, including parents, teachers, administrators, and members of the arts community.
This engagement has the potential to weave a network in which children will experience the arts, not through an isolated event in their lives, but as part of the world in which they live, in which they are entitled to participate, which enhances their experience and promotes their well-being.

As Dean Gorby puts it, “The arts bring hope.”

Hope is alive in Stockton, California.