By Carren Jao
"Many of my friends have strong beliefs. Ask them about gay marriage, gender equality, and they'll tell you what they think, but when it comes to educational reform, they're quiet," says Ryan Smith, director of education programs and policy for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles (UWGLA), "That's because it's complicated."
During an hour and a half session presented by Arts for LA at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, three speakers working in education proceeded to shed light on the complex case of providing every child equal access to quality education. As Smith intimated, it is a Gordian Knot of an issue, with lots of strings woven in together: community building, shaping policy and finding funding. It all boils down to partnerships and collaboration.
In her speech, Ellen Pais, president and CEO of Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) explored how her organization worked in partnership with schools and families to build networks for shared learning. LAEP advocates for project-based learning that integrates the arts into the curriculum. The organization recognizes that learning isn't just about the student, but the whole system of education--from the home to the school. In response, LAEP's early childhood program also includes home visitations, where regular assessments of children occur in the presence of their parents. "We do it that way so parents also learn to ask crucial questions, not just 'Is my child nice?'" says Pais. At the secondary level, LAEP provides professional development and coaching for teachers, and access to business communities that can provide real-world learning experiences. The organization teaches educators to work with local artists and other real-world professionals to bring to life an otherwise mundane subject matter.
Sandy Escobedo, senior policy analyst for the Advancement Project is similarly concerned about early education. She works on the policy to support increased early childhood education. "Why are we waiting until high school levels to change things?" Asked Escobedo, who cited a longitudinal study that proved children who are given high quality education from pre-K are more successful in life. According to Escobedo, those without quality pre-K educations are 25 percent more likely to drop out and 40 percent more likely to be teen parents, among other similarly disturbing statistics. Yet, despite those compelling figures, California continues to spend ten times more on prisons that pre-school educations. "LAUSD is improving," says Escobedo, a product of that system herself, "but it still needs lots of work in the earlier part of the education continuum."
As the name implies, United Way is working to build a coalition of parents, students, educators, community-based and civil rights organizations oriented toward equitable education. In his speech, Smith shared the story of a young student from the Gompers Middle School, where over 50% of students are in foster care. While building a leadership program, Smith had met a student who compared himself to the commonplace penny. By way of explanation, the student declared, "I'm just like this penny. A penny can grow to be a dime, a quarter, a dollar and more. I can be someone too, if you believe in me."
This lack of belief in the potential of young students is what's failing the system. "The biggest obstacle to success is low expectation," says Pais. Reports show that it's African American men and women who are disproportionately not able to graduate. A similar phenomenon happens in the Latino homes. United Way is working to build awareness of this inequity. Last April, United Way put out 375 desks in front of the L.A. Unified headquarters in downtown , an all-too real representation of the number of students that drop out of school every week in the school year. Smith also oversees Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS), a collaborative looking to build a powerful voice for educational reform.
The talk made clear that the solution to educational inequity won't be solved in a day, but the gap can be narrowed with the help of arts. By involving arts throughout the common core education, it can engage the minds of students who may not express as much interest. As Escobedo points out, the choice between education and arts education isn't binary. "We have to move away from this space of creating false choices. Instead, can we integrate our efforts to address the whole needs of a child."
Yet another stumbling block to finding funding for arts education is the need to show data. Pais points out that in order to show progress, one has to track students, but privacy issues have been raised due to the small sample that an organization usually works with. "We must strike a delicate balance," says Pais. Not only that, but education advocates must engage with school districts to actually make full use of the new Local Control Funding Formula, which enables schools to fund instructional programs.
The first step toward change is being engaged. Mark Slavkin, Vice President for Education at Music Center, suggests getting involved with Arts for LA, which among other things helps local communities develop arts education programs. The more radical may go the route Escobedo suggests, "Folks should consider running for office." She says rather than chasing after support from a politician, perhaps there is an opportunity to help shape policy."
Top Image: Anthony Masters Photography.
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