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Winning the Future - Losing the Present

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Last week I was caught up reading the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) report advocating for the preservation and expansion of arts curriculum in elementary and secondary schools. The report entitled "Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America's Future Through Creative Schools" offers model arts programs for local school districts to reference and highlights studies that indicate how arts education helps students succeed in other academic subjects. I was struck by two things as I read the report. The first was the similarities between the Departures Youth Voices program and the recommendations and models offered by the report. The second was the stark contrast between the reports findings and the reality of the severe budget cuts taking place in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

To characterize this dichotomy, On May 11th, the LA Times quoted the United Teachers of Los Angeles representative as saying, "the adopted district budget calls for slashing the arts instruction staff from 1,065 to 722 full- and part-time positions, a 32% reduction." Elementary school students would lose the most arts instructors at almost 60% (210 to 91). The number of secondary school arts staff would drop 26%." This is a remarkable turnaround from what had been recognized as an exemplary effort by the LAUSD, over the past 10 years, to develop and integrate arts initiatives into the schools.

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Currently at Franklin High School a campaign is underway to save the school's marching band ever since the bands director was given a pink slip. Last month students and teachers demonstrated in front of the school to put a spot light on the issue and gain community support. Of course it's not just art programs and teaching positions that are threatened. In fact, Franklin teachers and teachers from throughout LAUSD held a demonstration last Friday aimed at encouraging state legislators to place tax extensions on the fall ballot to provide continued funding to school districts. The District faces a nearly $408-million deficit and earlier this spring, the Board of Education voted to issue preliminary layoff notices to nearly 7,000 employees.

Clearly aware of school districts throughout the country facing similar situations, the PCAH's report notes, "due to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend." This is especially evident in districts, like LAUSD, that serve a high number of low-income students and students of color, where even prior to the budget cuts, research showed that access to the arts in schools was disproportionately absent. In direct contradiction, the PCAH asserts that it is the manual and performing arts that offer the best tools to reach and inspire at risk students, sparking students' creativity and nurturing critical thinking. Key characteristics sought after by employers in today's dynamic economy.

On the other extreme, it was heartening to see the connection between PCAH's report and Departures Youth Voices, specifically in two of the five recommendations outlined in the report. The first is the focus on arts integration, which the PCAH defines as, "the practice of using arts strategies to build skills and teach classroom subjects across different disciplines" The second is the establishment and/or extension of collaborations with teaching artist both in and outside the classroom in the development and implementation of arts programs in schools. Departures Youth Voices works closely with the classroom teacher and/or program administrator to introduce the project as a compliment or extension of the curriculum already being implemented. Through workshops, the Youth Voices digital literacy program engages high school students to become multimedia producers highlighting their neighborhoods. In the process, exploring, researching, and documenting the many sides of their community including, the history, environment, economics, and politics of the area. All this while learning, and in some cases mastering, multimedia/digital skills that empower the students to nurture and use their own voices in the defining their community.

It's wonderful to be working with the student producers at the Arroyo Seco Academy at Franklin High School, but it's difficult to watch teachers deal and maneuver through the pink slips, the dismantling of programs and the overall scope of the budget cuts. The gravity of the situation is not lost on the students, it's clear that everyone is feeling the stress in one way or another. A large percentage of Highland Park residents are under 30 years old. What value do they see placed on education and how is it made available to them?

Having been born and raised in and around Los Angeles, I don't remember a time when the education system, the district, schools, teachers, parents and students were not being questioned or under some kind of financial threat. It is a dangerous norm to live under and certainly hazardous to try to get an education in.

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