Lou Calcagno is a dairyman and farmer who has lived and worked in Monterey County his entire life. He also is someone with an intuitive sense of the importance of the arts in his life.

“Every farmer knows what it’s like to be an artist,” Calcagno told a gathering on arts education earlier this year. “Just look at the way our fields are planted.”

That understanding made Calcagno, who serves as a Monterey County supervisor, an ideal participant at the gathering, which the California Alliance for Arts Education convened in January at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. The event was the first of ten such meetings that the Alliance, a Hewlett grantee, is engineering across the state as part of a pilot program to develop grassroots support for bringing arts education to every California public school student.

The Alliance’s efforts are part of the Hewlett Foundation’s strategic goals of ensuring that exceptional works of art are created, performed, and preserved in California and broadening opportunities for everyone to participate in the arts. The Alliance is committed to “quality, equity, and access” in providing arts education through California public schools’ core curriculum.

While California’s continuing budget crisis make this an inauspicious time to press for increased funding of arts education, the Foundation and the Alliance hope that developing grassroots advocacy can lay the groundwork for future success.

The Alliance’s goal for the meetings is to create a cadre of local advocates who can develop and sustain relationships with local leaders, both political and educational, and act when opportunities arise to bring arts education into all classrooms. Currently, most public school students do not receive instruction in the four disciplines called for in state guidelines: music, theater, dance, and visual arts.

“We recognize that arts education lives or dies based on the understanding and support it receives within the local school district,” says Laurie Schell, executive director of the Alliance. “We know the support is out there. We hope these events will help us find people who have been waiting for a way to help.”

The pilot program intends to build upon the momentum created in each of the past two years, when the state legislature approved more than $100 million in funding for arts education. This funding, which in somewhat different form has so far survived the new budget, was intended to implement a comprehensive local vision for arts education.

The Alliance already has initiated the local advocacy pilot programs in Kern, Alameda, Orange, and San Mateo counties, with five more scheduled in Sonoma, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, and Tuolumne counties.

Local gatherings like the one in Salinas represent a cross section of community interests, including business, community, education, and arts organizations. Their messages about the roles of the arts in their lives convey the many ways in which an investment in arts education is an investment in the well-being of the entire community.

“We want to make sure every young person in the community gets a chance to participate” in the arts, said Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue, addressing the inaugural meeting where Calcagno also spoke. “We’re going to come at your kids, but with a paintbrush.”

Trish Sullivan, director of Artistas Unidos (Artists United) and an organizer of the Salinas event, said that the people there “represent the voices of the community who understand what the arts bring to education. The arts engage our kids in school, promote creative thinking skills, and prepare them to the meet the challenges they’ll be facing when they join the work force.”

Research into the impact of arts education on student learning and development has been on the rise in recent years. Findings suggest that California students stand to gain these benefits and more from high-quality school arts programs:

  • Students with high levels of arts participation outperform their peers with little or no experience with the arts.
  • Sustained involvement in particular art forms – music and theater – is highly correlated with success in mathematics and reading.
  • The arts have a measurable impact on students in high-poverty and urban settings.
  • Arts experiences enhance cognitive and social competencies and critical thinking abilities – important skills for a twenty-first-century workplace.

But perhaps the most eloquent testimony in support of arts education at the Salinas meeting came from a young girl who identified herself as Elena, a clarinet student in the Salinas public schools.

“I wanted to quit clarinet because I sounded horrible,” the eleven-year-old told the gathered adults. “My fingers didn’t cover the holes, and I didn’t blow correctly. But I decided to keep on going because I liked to play. . . . And I’m proud I didn’t quit.”