There’s a row of chairs outside Principal Marsha Guerrero’s office, and if you’re a student at Morrison Elementary School on the outskirts of Los Angeles, it’s not where you want to be. But week after week, that’s exactly where ten-year-old Andres often found himself.

The fourth-grader’s disciplinary problems were nothing special, says Guerrero, a twenty-year veteran as an elementary school principal. “He just needed to find something positive to belong to.”

So when Andres, out of the blue, told her he wanted to play the violin like the kids in another class, the principal quickly agreed. That was months ago. Guerrero hasn’t seen Andres in the chairs since.

For Joe Landon, the policy director of the California Alliance for Arts Education, a Hewlett Foundation grantee, Morrison Elementary and the story of Andres is a case study in the promise of arts education. The California Alliance-a broad coalition of statewide agencies, arts organizations, public schools, businesses, and individuals-works to encourage instruction in a full range of the arts for every K-12 student in California, in accordance with state guidelines.

Embracing the Arts

While researchers explore the connections between study of the arts and other learning, and state policymakers weigh the relative merits of learning the arts, math, English, and other subjects, Guerrero and her staff already have steered their population of largely low-income, immigrant students to view the arts as an integral part of their education.

“What drew me to Morrison was their commitment to the arts as core curriculum,” says Landon. “They understand that through the arts they are empowering their kids to be successful learners and citizens. It requires a real stand on the part of Guerrero to commit the time, funds, and resources for professional development to make it happen.”

The California Alliance promotes a comprehensive, sequential in-school program taught by credentialed teachers and designed to meet the state’s guidelines for teaching visual and performing arts. Those guidelines call for four broad disciplines-dance, music, theater, and visual arts-to be integrated into public school curricula and taught in the same way as other subjects, with progressive levels of mastery and later learning building upon what already has been taught.

Stories like those unfolding at Morrison Elementary are the kind the California Alliance shares as it works to reintegrate arts education in public schools after years of cuts and neglect.

For Landon, Principal Guerrero’s commitment to arts education was neatly summarized by a Chinese proverb on the wall of her office: “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” Put another way, Guerrero believes that the arts are not an extra that you add onto the school day, but an essential part of the “song” that every child sings.

An Intuitive Understanding

In the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, the home of Morrison Elementary, 75 percent of the students come from low-income families, and 35 percent are just learning to speak English. Parents’ expectations about the importance of education run high.
With so much on the line, it might surprise some that Guerrero invests so much instructional time, resources, and leadership to ensure that her students receive quality arts education. “I call it ‘faith-based’ education,” says Guerrero. “The parents get it. Even though it’s a dormant belief, they know what’s good for their kids.”

While most schools are moving cautiously to seek ways to include the arts within their curricula, this fall the music program at Morrison Elementary has expanded to include every student in standards-based music instruction. Partnering with the Los Angeles Music Center, which provides professional musicians who teach, and the Music and Education National Consortium, which provides professional development, Morrison is an example of what can happen when a principal becomes engaged with what arts education has to offer.

“I’m not musical,” Guerrero says matter-of-factly. “The only instrument I play is the radio.”

Putting Together the Pieces

But her experience as an adult learning to speak a second language changed her mind about the role of music as a “carrier of language”: “I was singing in Spanish before I could speak it.” The discovery led her to explore the connection between music and the instruction of math and reading, which has now expanded to include its impact on social/emotional development and basic learning processes.

“My kids are learning systematically through music, in a way that informs everything they do,” she says. “Through instruction in music, they learn to listen, to question, to create, to perform, and to reflect on what they’ve learned.”

Guerrero says there’s a “hidden curriculum” to arts education that teaches responsibility and concentration.
“When children are involved in learning music, they also learn a lesson about focusing,” she says. “You can’t play music if your attention is somewhere else. You have to be 100 percent involved in the task at hand. If we can teach this skill through the arts, then we hopefully can transfer it to the children when they’re reading and doing other tasks.”

Guerrero talks about arts education in terms of the assets it builds in students that will enable them to succeed in their lives: self-esteem, perseverance, respect for others, the capacities to lead, collaborate, and self-critique.

But ask Andres why he doesn’t get sent to Mrs. Guerrero’s office anymore, and he responds with a look that makes you wonder why you bothered asking the question when the answer’s so obvious.

“I got responsible for my violin,” says Andres, gesturing to the instrument, “and that got me responsible for myself.”