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Monday, Oct. 22, 2007 | Art offerings vary widely between San Diego elementary schools. Despite a push for standardized lessons and a boost in state arts spending, individual schools still devote vastly different resources to art, music, dance and theatre — from clay and tempera to costumes and textbooks.

Some schools still don’t teach art at all. And San Diego schools are still coming to grips with the first-ever California standards for teaching art, passed only five years ago.

“The range of art programs is huge,” said Marty Stegeman, visual art resource teacher for San Diego City Schools. “From a handful of schools that have a [dedicated] art teacher on site, to absolutely nothing. There’s still people who believe they’ll get in trouble if they’re caught with crayons on their desks.”

Textbooks are one example. California’s Williams Act, which requires schools to provide sufficient textbooks for all students, doesn’t apply to the visual and performing arts. Textbook adoption processes, through which districts pick the required texts for different classes, are optional for arts books. That leaves schools to choose different texts, or none at all.

And because the arts are last in line for textbook dollars, some schools spend school-site money or plug for parent donations to buy texts, instead of relying on dollars handed down from the district.

“We’re not sure we’ll be able to adopt art and music textbook this year, for the elementary schools,” said Denise Hankins, who helps coordinate textbook adoptions for the district. “The issue is funding. We’re replacing science textbooks this year for K through 8 — and you can imagine the size of that population.”

Those factors leave wealthy elementary schools better off in arts than their poorer counterparts, said Karen Childress-Evans, director of visual and performing arts programs for San Diego City Schools. Secondary schools have generally fared better, with specific classes in the arts and new books in art subjects including advertising art, marching band, and music theory adopted districtwide since 2004.

“We’re working on it, and we’re better than most,” Childress-Evans said. She gestured to a district map, motioning to the distance between National City and Poway, the southern and northern borders of the district. “The gaps are closing. By the end of the year, we hope art will be taught in every elementary school.”

But it won’t be taught with the same quality, she cautioned.

Even though special state funds are flowing to the arts, San Diego Unified’s Visual and Performing Arts Department has cut a music specialist, who visited schools to help coordinate music programs. The district also trimmed plans to adopt new textbooks. Five hundred million dollars of one-time grants, earmarked for arts and physical events, and an ongoing fund of $105 million solely for the arts were approved by the Legislature in 2006, supplying between $100 and $200 per student, depending on school size.

Yet Childress-Evans said she’s working with a slimmed-down arts budget.

“We’re tightening up teacher schedules so they’re working at more schools,” she said. “We can’t fund the textbooks we wanted to.”

Delays are part of the problem. Money approved two years ago didn’t hit the arts budget until this school year, and the department doesn’t have reserves to dip into, said Childress-Evans.

And there’s confusion over the strings attached to special funds, meant to “supplement, not supplant” existing programs. Childress-Evans said the special state grants can’t be used for textbook adoptions, the process by which new, standard texts are selected districtwide, but can be used to buy books if no adoption process takes place. Nancy Carr, the state consultant for visual and performing arts, said there is no such restriction statewide.

Still, fearful of misspending the funds, Childress-Evans said the district plans to buy arts books without adopting them across the district. That means less uniformity among schools, and no guarantee that the books will be replaced years later.

“You come into an awkward situation,” she said. “We have a lot of renegade satellites out there, and not everyone is using the same textbook.”

Inconsistency has long plagued arts education in San Diego and statewide, according to a 2006 report by the James Irvine Foundation. State standards for visual and performing arts programs weren’t set until 2001, and funding has risen and dropped with the tides of Sacramento politics.

The pattern holds in San Diego City Schools. The district sponsors a dazzling array of arts programs, including “road shows” that train classroom teachers in how to teach art and “Keys to Achievement,” described by one principal as “a video game with Beethoven.” But individual schools still differ radically in the resources they devote to art.

Dana Elementary School fields two theatre teachers, three visual art teachers, one band teacher and one strings teacher; Encanto Elementary, which is moderately smaller, has none, according to a magnetic board displayed in Childress-Evans’ Mission Beach office. Aqua, orchid-pink and powder-blue bars denote different kinds of teachers, lined up next to each school’s name. Scripps Ranch and Serra high schools are a rainbow; Garfield High is a blank.

Not all arts teaching needs to be done by a specialist: Stegeman spent the bulk of this week training classroom teachers in arts education, helping them move past rote activities such as crayoning turkeys to educate kids in line, shape and space. Roughly 120 teachers took time out of their schedules to learn, she said.

But Childress-Evans said that the neediest schools, those fretting about failing No Child Left Behind, are less likely to send their teachers to Stegeman’s training. That means many poorer schools haven’t gotten on board with standards-based arts — the very means by which arts programs were intended to be equalized.

“There’s a big difference between art education and an arts experience,” Stegeman said, “though if you were walking into a classroom, you might not notice the difference, unless you know what you’re looking for.”

The rainbowed “‘Portfolio” textbooks, last adopted for elementary art classes in 1996, look appealing. Many, left under shrink-wrap, are still all-but-new. But they don’t conform to state standards that lay out what students should be learning about art and when — standards that weren’t established until 2001.

“The standards have made it much clearer and focused,” explained Kristine Alexander, executive director of the California Arts Project. “What we hear from schools is they provide a focus for the curriculum and the program they’re developing. … This isn’t to say it’s standardized arts. But there’s very clear learning goals.”

Without it, Alexander said, many districts suffer from “a patchwork approach, with random acts of art happening,” but little consistency.

“Let’s just take color,” Stegeman said. “Under a standardized curriculum, kindergarteners need to be able to name their colors. In first grade, they need to know primary and secondary colors. In second grade, they learn the difference between warm and cool colors, and the effect when an artist uses them. That’s standards-based. Now, these second graders have learned there’s a meaning to the colors they use, to the choices they make when creating their pictures.”

To Stegeman, that’s the way San Diego schools can ensure equal art education, across the district. That demands more buy-in from individual schools, or more funds to spread standardized art classes to every San Diego school.

“Believe me, we’re not looking this gift horse in the mouth,” she said, speaking of state grants. “But you’ve got this huge problem, and the funding shakes out to about $100 per student. What can you get for $100 per student, spread over three years?”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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