Saturday, November 10, 2007

The museum takes a field trip to the classroom

LACMA On-Site brings artists and art instruction to LAUSD campuses.

By Mike Boehm
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 7, 2007

Armed with a $24-million special endowment, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has begun what its leaders say will be a long-term campaign to help plant visual art instruction securely in county public schools.

"Nationwide, I don't think there's another museum program on this scale" for bringing such teaching into public classrooms, said LACMA's director, Michael Govan. "We're trying to establish more and more things that lead the field."

"We've never done anything on this scale. . . . We've never done anything in this depth," said Jane Burrell, who heads the museum's $3.3-million-a-year education department.

Under the program, LACMA-paid instructors should become familiar presences in 18 elementary and middle schools that will be among the primary feeders for a Los Angeles Unified School District downtown arts high school, due to open in 2009.

The $1-million-a-year initiative, dubbed LACMA On-Site, will stay in the area, known as Local District 4, for at least four years. Each classroom in seven chosen elementary schools will get an intensive, six-lesson art sequence each year for two years; then the process will repeat in seven other grade schools. Comparable programs will take place in the four middle schools for all four years.

Hunger for art programs

Besides working with students, LACMA-sponsored artists aim to be mentors for regular classroom teachers, helping them gain the know-how to keep art learning going after the two or four years are up and the museum's caravan has moved on to a new set of schools.

Underwriting the plan is a large education bequest from Anna Bing Arnold, a philanthropist and art collector who was one of the museum's founding trustees. District 4 stretches from the Pasadena Freeway through downtown and west to Beverly Hills and will supply about 1,200 of the arts high school's 1,700 students.

Richard Alonzo, the former art teacher who is superintendent of District 4, said he pushed for the partnership with LACMA because "How can you have an arts high school that doesn't have children prepared to access world-class arts instruction?" District 4's enrollment is predominantly Latino, and last year nearly half its students were classified as English learners.

After LACMA received the Bing bequest in 2005, museum and school officials spent a year planning the program. Alonzo said that more than 30 schools applied for 11 opportunities in a highly competitive process he said reflected teachers' and principals' hunger for good art programs and their interest in using art to propel lessons in other subjects. Later, school officials decided to double the number of elementary schools involved while halving the duration at each one from four years to two.

LACMA On-Site was launched in January, but museum and school officials planned to tout it today at opening ceremonies for an art gallery at one of the campuses involved, Charles White Elementary School near MacArthur Park. The gallery, which dates from when the same building housed Otis Art Institute (an earlier name for Otis College of Art and Design), will be open daily at 2401 Wilshire Blvd. It features a mixture of works from LACMA's collection, displays of student projects and installation art by two LACMA-commissioned artists.

The initiative comes as California arts education advocates spot signs of daylight after a long dark night. Proponents trace the decline of the arts in public schools to Prop. 13, the property tax-freeze initiative of 1978, which in many districts led arts instruction to be jettisoned in favor of other subjects deemed more essential. There's also little fondness in arts circles for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has been in effect since 2002. Some detractors say the act gives school officials an additional incentive to marginalize the arts because they are not covered in the law's signature standardized testing.

A recent study by SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif., research institute, concluded that, apart from some pockets of excellence typically shored up by donations from parents, "arts education in California is plagued by a lack of funding, under-prepared elementary-level teachers, and inadequate facilities . . . and is often crowded out by other curricular demands." Surveying elementary schools in 2005-06, the study's authors found that only 25% had a full-time specialist teaching art, music, theater or dance.

Last year, the state government, which provides most of the funding for K-12 education, earmarked a little more than $100 million annually for school districts to begin improving arts offerings.

Advocates such as Laurie Schell, executive director of the California Alliance for Arts Education, aren't taking it on faith that the spigot will remain open, however. They cite Sacramento's annual budget brinkmanship (partly a consequence of the state's unusual requirement of a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the Assembly to pass a spending plan) as well as a huge ongoing state deficit. In addition, the state provided a one-time infusion of $500 million in 2006 for supplies, equipment and teacher training, to be divided between arts and physical fitness programs.

The result, said Mark Slavkin, vice president of education for L.A.'s Music Center, is a "mental shift" in how some school districts view arts instruction. He and Schell see hope in the increasing number of districts hiring high-level arts coordinators who can influence the planning and spending decisions of superintendents and school boards, getting them to focus more on the arts.

A new movement

L.A. Unified is well ahead of the curve, Slavkin said, having embarked eight years ago on a 10-year plan to give students what the district's director of arts education, Richard Burrows, calls a basic "foundation" in visual arts, music, theater and dance. Spending has doubled from $63 million a year to $124 million, Burrows said, which has led to the hiring of more than 200 elementary school arts teachers.

Donated help such as the $1million from LACMA doesn't count toward the goals of the 10-year plan, he added, but is a welcome addition to what LAUSD aims to provide on its own.

LACMA director Govan noted that LACMA On-Site is being refined based on reports from evaluators whom the museum has hired to help gauge how well the program works, including determining whether evidence exists that increased art instruction helps students with other subjects. Measurable success, he said, would allow LACMA to herald the program's achievements to elected officials who control the purse strings on potentially far more funding than nonprofits can provide.

The LACMA initiative, Govan said, "is not a panacea, but it's enough to make a dent, so you can speak loudly about it."

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