Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Arts Education Forum - Week 2, Day 1 - belated posting

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on……………………………….”

Apologies: We have been having problems with the platform in posting the blog and having it successfully delivered to the listserv. We are working on correcting the problem and the delivery system. My sincerest apologies to the participants in this blog and to the readers for this interruption in this forum.

Arts Education Blog Forum – Week Two, Day 1:
Note: You can scroll down to see last week's posts - in reverse chronologial order. If you wish to enter a comment scroll down to the end of this blog and click on the word "Comment."

Category: Fieldbuilding

Question: What are we doing to help parents and the public understand: a) Why arts education is essential to their child’s future, and b) What constitutes a high level arts education component?

Gigi Antoni (Executive Director, Big Thought, Dallas, Texas):

One of the most important things that we can do to engage parents and the public in arts education is to seek out what is valuable to them, because the customs, beliefs and traditions of communities are what will ultimately drive their priorities. Finding community advocates for arts education doesn’t have to be a conversion, but it does have to be a conversation. My organization interviewed hundreds of parents and families and came away with powerful, paradigm-shifting truths about how we engage our community.

As Nick Rabkin reminded us in an earlier post, arts education has grown up into two tracks: “One has its roots in the long history of conservatories that have trained professional artists to make work at the highest levels for patrons since the middle ages. The other is far newer, making its first appearance here in the US in the settlement movement more than a century ago, when artists began teaching new immigrants and others in low-income neighborhoods.”

What we’ve found by speaking with parents is that these largely divergent tracks mean that most families consider “the arts” a negligible component in their child’s development. After all, the arts are only in museums and symphony halls, as they saw it. But our research showed that most families were deeply, consistently creative and valued creativity in their children. 

For instance, a family might have generations of women who quilt and who consider that skill to be part of their cultural identity and of the fabric of their family. What could be more powerful or more highly valued than an endeavor like that? When I was a child, my father used to lay me on his chest and play classical records on his hi-fi. As I laid there with him, listening to his breathing, he would whisper teachings to me: “Now, you’re going to hear this theme repeated. Do you recognize it?” This memory, still vibrantly recallable today, was the foundation of my love for the arts. They became interwoven into something I loved, my father, and therefore it became desirable and important for me.

Yet too often, the arts education field devalues these community and family driven experiences with the arts because they aren’t what we consider “high quality”. Quality is generally thought of as highly-effective arts activities which maximize student/instructor interactions in a supportive setting and utilize proven techniques, methods and ideologies. Yet as a field, we can’t ignore the fact that quality also means access, equity and consistency in a child’s life. If arts experiences are not ubiquitous and viable over the duration of a child’s education, they become a tangential episode in students’ educational journey. In the nexus of the two tracks’ convergence is the place where we will find the most powerful arts education advocates you can imagine. If we can effectively connect community experiences, which are happening in neighborhoods day-in and day-out across geographic and socioeconomic areas, to what happens inside classrooms, museums and concert halls, then arts education will naturally become a community concern.

Parents and the public are in the business of “ends” – parents want their children to be successful, well-rounded adults and the public wants kids who grow up to be productive citizens who will contribute to the greater good. If we want to persuade parents and the public of the importance of arts education, we have to build a case that it is a means through which these ends are achieved. When they understand this relationship, they begin to see the arts as a significant, critical piece of education that will yield the highly-valued outcomes that communities already intuitively understand.

My organization often asked students the “three C’s” when determining how to best program for them: What do you care about? What are you concerned about? What challenges do you face? The same questions should be applied to parents. All parents care about the future of their children. All parents are concerned about how to give their children opportunities to experience things that will help them succeed. Unfortunately, the arts education field itself is sometimes the challenge parents face because we haven’t sufficiently connected the arts as a meaningful part of life and of learning. Instead, we get caught up talking among ourselves using language and concepts which, while they are undoubtedly valuable to our field, are without context or relevance in our communities. We use words that are technical and sterile – arts education, discipline-based arts education, integration, sequential learning, etc. What’s more effective is to spread our message in a way that resonates with most parents or community members – creativity, self-expression, self-esteem, educational success, cultural literacy, etc. These ideas are the convergence of both tracks. They are both the goals of the public and outcomes of art, both the root of educational success and the foundation of community life.

I’ll leave you with a link that describe how Big Thought has tried to mitigate the challenges of parent and public engagement in Dallas and hope that you’ll share your experiences with me, as well.

Joe Landon (As of August 1, Joe Landon is the new Executive Director of the California Alliance for Arts Education. Earlier in his career he was a playwright and television writer, and worked for the California State Legislature. This blog entry constitutes his first official act as Executive Director.)
When I joined the Alliance as its policy director in 2006, we were savoring the hard earned victory that led to California’s historic investment in arts education, including the one time block grant shared with physical education and the ongoing “Arts and Music” categorical funding. But even then, the Alliance’s concern was shifting toward the question of how to sustain advocacy at the local level, where crucial decisions made by local school boards determine the quality, equity, and access of arts education in a school district.

When the state legislature gave local districts the ‘flexibility’ to spend the Arts and Music Block grant on whatever programs they considered most essential, the Alliance had already embarked on a project to build a local advocacy network in communities and districts throughout the state.

In the first year of this pilot program, we selected ten sites throughout the state, reflecting diverse communities, geographical areas and economic conditions. Our goal was to gather the expertise around what would be required to foster an ongoing coalition of local leaders who share a commitment to build public understanding and support for the critical role of arts education in the development of every student. Each coalition represents a cross section of community interests, including business, community, education and arts organizations.

Part of this effort includes providing advocates with information that articulates the crucial value that arts education provides in preparing our students for the future: http://www.artsed411.org/toolkit/index.aspx

Although there have been communities throughout the country where there was a sustained effort to organize arts education advocates, there is no precedent for a statewide effort to capture local advocacy.

Today our Local Advocacy Network (LAN) includes over thirty coalitions throughout the state, from San Diego to Fresno to Humboldt County. Over the past three years, our work has become more codified, as best practices and indicators of success have emerged from these efforts in local communities. Earlier this year we pulled together evidence of this ongoing work in what we refer to as the LANBOOK. It includes resources for building relationships with school officials, organizing a launch event and garnering media attention. Feel free to use these resources and to contact us if you have any additional questions about building a local coalition in your community.

One of the most effective projects undertaken by local advocates was the District Election Survey. Candidate surveys provide a time-based, newsworthy way to raise awareness about the value and challenges of providing arts education in our public schools. In 2010, with the help of local advocates, the Alliance surveyed school board candidates in over 40 California districts. The results were published a month before election day and made arts education a vital part of public conversation leading up to the election. To read more about the project, including how to get involved, click here.

We will continue to share what we are learning in our ongoing effort to build support for arts education at the local level. This September, we’re launching an online home for our Local Advocacy Coalitions that will be a place to find tips from seasoned organizers, information about events in a particular area, and ways to spread this work to new communities. We’re also expanding our online action center, to provide advocates around the state with the resources they need to promote arts education.

Paul Richman (In 2007, Paul Richman joined California State PTA as the first executive director in the association’s 100-plus year history. Prior to that he served for nearly 10 years as an assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association. He began his career working in the state legislature. He has a degree in political science from Vanderbilt University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.)
As much as we can. And yet, still not nearly enough.

That’s what California State PTA is doing to help parents and the public understand why arts education is essential to their children’s future.

With nearly 1 million members in the state, PTA has a long track record of promoting the importance of arts education for every child. A fall 2010 survey of our local leaders showed “access to a complete curriculum that includes the arts for every student” was a top priority for 90.6 percent of respondents, exceeded only by “adequate funding for schools” at 97.5 percent and “teacher effectiveness” at 90.9 percent.

This survey data suggests that actively involved parents and volunteer leaders already understand how important arts education is. In the past two years, we’ve worked to build up our network of more than 4,000 “Parents for the Arts” who receive SMARTS, a monthly e-newsletter about arts education, including reports, legislative updates, and strategies for promoting the arts and engaging others in the cause. This past year we also launched an initiative to identify an arts education chair at each of our local PTA units, councils and districts, with the intent that these chairs will help build local partnerships, and provide the needed sparks to forge larger communications chains.

In addition, we’re working closely with tremendous partners like the California Alliance for Arts Education, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, and many individual county offices of education, such as those in Alameda and Orange (to name just two), to make sure that parent advocacy components are built into more trainings, events and programs.

Despite this work, we know we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of building greater understanding about the importance of the arts in education – and beyond that, inspiring a groundswell of support and action. Make no mistake: When the time comes that we truly can activate a million parents (or even a half million) to demand higher quality education that includes the arts – then we won’t be analyzing these types of questions in blogs any longer. Then we’ll see policy and budget decisions that have changed dramatically at the state and local levels.

How do we get there, though? It’s no easy lift.

In much of our recent work at PTA we’ve strategized about two things: How to engage more of the traditionally underrepresented or uninvolved parents, and how to reach those critical next circles of potential advocates – the ones beyond what we know to be a reliable, knowledgeable and passionate core of arts education advocates already in place.

With limited capacity, we can’t keep spending time talking to ourselves or convincing our core supporters and advocates. We have to reach more of the parents who didn’t grow up with arts education programs in their own public schools because those programs have been gone for a generation or two.We need to reach more of the parents who were not born in this country or are not native English speakers.

Again, PTA has taken some exciting, initial steps. This past school year, with the support of the Hewlett Foundation, we launched a pilot parent education program in 14 elementary schools in California. This program, called School Smarts, builds on our research indicating that before we can build a larger network of parent advocates for arts education, many of those parents first desire more foundational training. When it comes to advocacy, we can’t instantly go from zero to 60. There is no shortcut to increasing the number parent advocates. This is true whether we’re talking about speaking up for arts education or speaking up for healthier school lunches or on any other issue. We have to start by making more parents feel comfortable coming to the school, then providing basic information and training. Our research shows this is what parents want.

PTA’s School Smarts program starts with a campus-wide parent engagement event open to all, followed by a seven-week parent academy where interested parents learn the basics and begin to think collectively about how to support their schools. The program is delivered in English, Spanish or Cantonese. In our pilot year, half of the participating parents among the 14 schools were Spanish speakers.

A special feature of the program is that we also expose parents to arts instruction. At one of the typical initial campus-wide parent engagement nights, about 80 parents and family members attend with their children. They share a light meal, hear from the principal, learn about their school, and then they participate in a standards-based arts activity. An art instructor takes them through a lesson – in perspective maybe, or diorama, or African drumming. For a half-hour on these evenings, mothers, fathers and grandparents create alongside the children.

The arts are then woven into the instruction provided during the seven modules of the parent academies, so parents gain a firsthand sense of how the arts facilitate learning. In some cases, the parents go home and teach their children the arts activity they learned that evening.

For some of the parents, this may be their first encounter with the arts in many years. Many are nervous at first, even uncomfortable. Soon enough they lose themselves in the activity. Generational differences are bridged. Cultural and linguistic differences are bridged. In this sense, the arts are a version of breaking bread at our school campuses. For some parents, if we can get them to come onto the campus and if we can create a positive experience for them while they’re on the campus, then we have taken a small but so-very-important first step on the longer road to helping them become confident, engaged advocates for their own children – and for all children.

The data and evaluations of our pilot-year program indicate strong success in educating diverse groups of parents. When I visited the parent academies at some of our school sites I observed something even more striking than the pre- and post-survey data. In the multi-purpose room at many of the campuses, I saw the artwork of parents hanging side by side with the works of their children. Parents who had rarely even set foot on the campus before were now proudly displaying their works of visual art on the campus walls! As much as anything, that tells me we are on to something big.

More tomorrow………………..

Don’t Quit