Saving the Arts

How Parents and Communities are Keeping Art Education Alive in Public Schools

dana">By Caroline Grannan

Once upon a time, California public schools offered regular art classes during the school day, and music from bands, orchestras and choirs filled the halls. One thing that didn’t fill the halls was a flurry of parents actively fund raising to pay for arts programs. That’s because, back in the days when California public schools had enough funding to function comfortably, the arts were provided by public education dollars.

dana">Then, in 1978, voter-approved Prop. 13 cut taxes, drastically curtailing the flow of revenues to schools. “Before Prop. 13, every middle school and high school in San Francisco had two music teachers, two art teachers and probably a drama and a dance teacher,” says Rob Daniels, top arts administrator in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). “After Prop. 13 came through,” he says, using language that evokes a hurricane or a tornado, “everything was devastated, and every school was left to fend for itself. Now, only grassroots efforts keep the arts alive in schools.” Continuing economic blows and budget cuts have repeatedly left many schools deprived of the arts ever since.


Where Arts Flourish

dana">At a time when schools are struggling to preserve their arts programs, San Francisco’s acclaimed public School of the Arts (SOTA) high school keeps arts alive for its 600-plus students. SOTA admits by audition in a specific discipline, and students must focus on their discipline, studying their art all afternoon after academic classes in the morning.

dana">SOTA offers visual arts, theater arts, dance, instrumental and vocal music, theater tech, media arts and its newest discipline, creative writing – an innovation when taught as an arts discipline.

SOTA is currently located at the district’s old McAteer campus at 555 Portola Drive, near Twin Peaks. SFUSD’s long-range plan for SOTA is to transform a cluster of historic district-owned buildings along Van Ness Avenue into a campus located amidst the Civic Center area’s many arts resources such as the opera and the symphony.

SOTA Principal Donn Harris is a strong advocate of arts education throughout the school years. “Arts need to remain alive in the core curriculum through commitment and sound decision-making,” he says. For information, contact 415-695-5700 or visit or

Post-Prop. 13, many California schools have struggled to keep arts education going, with a patchwork of some public funding, PTA fund raising, private grants, donated volunteer time and whatever other resources determined school communities could scrape together. Some have had more success than others.

T-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Roman'">Madeleine Robins, a parent at Moscone Elementary in San Francisco’s Mission District, praises her daughter’s school’s arts program. “We have a terrific dance and visual arts program,” she says. “All kids get two 45-minute dance classes a week with local resident artists who have been working with the program for years. This takes the place of P.E. and has multiple benefits. They have a dance recital in the spring. We also have a visual artist who comes to the classroom once a week to work with each class.”

T-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Roman'">Robins’ description of how the programs are funded offers an illustration of what many schools have to do in order to provide such resources. “[The arts are] funded entirely by a mix of foundation grants, fund-raisers like raffles, BoxTops 4 Education, book fairs and the like, and parent donations,” she explains.

T-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Roman'">

Arts Improve Academics

Down the Peninsula in Redwood City, private fund raising and some district money saved the entire school district’s music program, which was reported dead in May 2005 after a parcel tax failed at the ballot box, says assistant superintendent John Baker.

In San Francisco, voters have given a new boost to the arts. In March 2004, residents passed Prop. H, legislation that allocates millions of dollars from the city budget to meet designated needs for schools. The school district is a state agency, and schools are not funded by the city, so the voter-approved money is a special gift. Part of the money, which is just now beginning to flow to schools, is earmarked for arts.

“With Prop. H money, we’re hoping to fill all the holes so every child can have a sequential arts education from grades K-12,” says Daniels. “We’re now one of the few school districts in the state – maybe the nation – that has an expanding budget for arts, because of Prop. H.”

In SFUSD, school communities determine how they spend their own budgets. Instead of district headquarters determining what programs each school gets, the individual School Site Councils – elected bodies made up of school staff, parents and community members – decide how to allocate budgets. In this era, that means determining what gets cut.

In theory, any school could allocate its resources to at least some arts programs. But, in practice, schools with many struggling students are essentially required to allocate every dime to providing remedial support in the basics, like reading and math. The focus on testing and required annual improvement, stemming from the No Child Left Behind federal law and from California’s Academic Performance Index program, means a school’s very existence may be at stake if test scores don’t rise.

But eliminating arts to raise test scores is a big mistake, says San Franciscan Carol Kocivar, a legislative advocate for the California State PTA who focuses on arts in schools. “Research shows that students who get arts education improve their academic achievement,” she points out. “The irony is that schools think they have to cut the arts to do more ‘drill-and-kill’ to increase test scores. But the research tells us that bringing arts into schools will increase test scores.”

Kocivar is talking about reports like a 2002 summary from the National Governors’ Association Center for Best Practices. It states: “The arts can provide effective learning opportunities to the general student population, yielding increased academic performance, reduced absenteeism, and better skill-building.”

The benefit to schools in low-income areas is worth noting. Before Prop. H, academic needs shoved arts out at many lower-performing schools. Some middle and high schools offer band, orchestra, choir, visual arts or drama as electives during the curricular day, but such choices simply don’t exist at other schools. For years, some schools have been left with the bare minimum – and these are invariably schools that teach mostly disadvantaged students.

But, as the Governor’s Association report says, “For at-risk youth, that segment of society most likely to suffer from limited lifetime productivity, the arts contribute to lower recidivism rates; increased self-esteem; the acquisition of job skills; and the development of much needed creative thinking, problem solving and communications skills. Involvement in the arts is one avenue by which at-risk youth can acquire the various competencies necessary to become economically self-sufficient over the long term.”

Thanks to voters, Prop. H money is deliberately designated for specific resources – including sports, P.E., libraries and preschool as well as arts – and cannot be shifted elsewhere.


Parents Protect Programs

At schools where parents have the resources to fund raise, and where staff or parents have the know-how to seek grants, adults have assembled a patchwork of arts programs on their own. For example, at San Francisco’s Buena Vista Elementary, a combination of funds even pays for a part-time consultant, Bob Armstrong, to administer the array of arts, which include Orff music – a distinctive teaching method using recorder and percussion instruments – and the Brazilian martial arts-dance melange called capoeira. “I give the Buena Vista PTA the credit for keeping the arts going,” Armstrong says. “They really stand up for the arts, and that’s where almost all their money goes.”

Across town at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary in the Sunset District, a grant provides artists-in-residence at each grade level for six to 10 weeks. “The artist-in-residence at each grade level practices a different type of art. K-1 has a visual artist, 2nd has a dancer, 3rd has a capoeira maestro, 4th is drama and 5th a poet,” explains parent Kari Gray.

Similar situations – distinctive combinations of arts funded by cobbled-together money – exist at many elementary schools in San Francisco and on the Peninsula. In San Francisco, school officials are just beginning to sort out how Prop. H money will fit in with what’s already being provided at schools.

Prop. H and other funding sources will make the biggest difference at schools that have lacked arts. In middle and high schools especially, fitting arts into the school day as part of the curriculum – as opposed to optional programs before or after school – is a key challenge. Daniels believes the only real, long-term solution is to add an instructional period to the current six-period day – a very expensive proposition.

Another positive sign for schools is SFUSD’s upcoming Arts Education Master Plan, to be unveiled this spring, which advocates hope will offer guidelines to permanently restoring the arts to what they once were.

“The main issue is equity in arts education for all San Francisco children, with arts taught during the curricular day,” says Susan Stauter, SFUSD’s artistic director for secondary schools. “We have brilliantly talented and creative children in every neighborhood, regardless of their family’s income. We have an obligation to tap into and encourage the creativity of every child.”


A partial listing of local arts resources that support schools and teachers.

• Art in Action – Menlo Park, 650-566-8339,

• Community Music Center – San Francisco, 415-647-6015,

• San Francisco Academy for the Performing Arts – 415-703-0409,

• San Francisco Arts Commission – 415-252-2590,

• San Francisco Symphony – Education and Community Programs, 415-552-8000,