by Mary Plummer| 89.3 KPCC | http://bit.ly/1oHwSfo
Rory Pullens, the new head of arts education for the Los Angeles Unified School District, speaks to teachers during an introduction meeting at George Washington Carver Middle School. Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
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August 15 2014 :: The standing ovation lasted 35 seconds.
Rory Pullens stood in the auditorium of Carver Middle School in South Los Angeles getting cheers from Los Angeles Unified arts teachers — his new staff.
"I love it, I love him," said Julie Pritikin, a longtime elementary music teacher. "He sounds like he's for all the things that I would like for our district."
Superintendent John Deasy recruited the well-known arts educator from Washington, D.C., where Pullens led the high-achieving Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Pullens opened the first week of the new school year in Los Angeles by energizing arts teachers with his plans to collaborate — and help boost funding for arts education in his new position as executive director of the arts education program. It was music to their ears. After years of lackluster budgets, these teachers are eager for change.
The district has stumbled to restore arts since the deep funding cuts of the recession — a 2012 school board resolution to provide every student in the district with arts education access, among other benchmarks, has largely stalled.
"To be able to have an arts teacher in a discipline in each of our schools, is just, should be a foundation of what these young people deserve and what they should have," Pullens said. "We are going to work towards improving that funding." (READ MORE from KPCC's interview with Pullens below)
As KPCC has found, 87 percent of L.A. Unified's elementary schools won't offer comprehensive arts access for the 2014-15 school year, despite a mandate to do so in California's education code.
Robin Lithgow, who led L.A. Unified's arts education branch until she retired in 2012, said the district needs someone who brings a lot of heft in persuasion and can safeguard arts funding. She said officials should use general funds to support arts on a par with subjects like math and science.
"We need a fighter and I think he will be one," she said, of Pullens, who is originally from Southern California.
Pullens' former supervisor Dan Shea, who is an Instructional Superintendent for District of Columbia Public Schools, described him as a collaborator and impresario with deep connections in the entertainment industry.
"He knows many of these artists personally," said Shea, recalling a conversation with Pullens where he mentioned having had lunch with Sting. During his nine years at Duke Ellington, Pullens takes credit for a string of benefit concerts that raised more than $5 million.
"He knows these people. He meets people," Shea said. "Many of whom just have that spirit of sharing and giving back to schools."
Pullens has worked in casting, script writing and script editing. His credits include the NBC sitcom "A Different World" and the 1988 feature film "Stand and Deliver."
He turned down offers to run Cortines high school twice, before signing on to work for Los Angeles Unified in May.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH RORY PULLENS
Q: L.A. Unified's plan calls for a big heap of arts integration (which involves teaching classroom teachers how to integrate the arts into other subjects). What are your thoughts on that strategy?
The concept of arts integration has proven, by research, a very effective one. I think that the more teachers can appreciate and implement the arts into whatever discipline they teach, the better off we are. When generalists are integrating arts strategies and artistic disciplines into their core curriculum discipline, it makes a believer out of them. The more believers we have in arts education, I think the easier it is as we move down the road to appreciate the value of a discrete arts teacher — that that is not just an extra person out there. That is critically important.
Will the arts branch expand staffing under your leadership?
It is an enormous job. The truth of the matter is that the branch is not large enough to fully support the professional development, to have the kinds of depth of evaluations, and really help the teachers to be able to grow. The department certainly could largely benefit from an expansion. But by the same token, we also look at the fact that many people will say, 'it expanded when you came, Rory.' So I think that as we continue to increase some of our outside revenue coming into the district, we may be able to strategically place some people to be able to help in those areas behind the scenes.
Will you follow the district's current arts plan – or come up with one of your own?
Everything will be a work in progress. However, I think it's important to take that which is working and hold onto that and continue with that. And tweak those areas that may not be as effective.