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Filling the Gap in Public School Arts Education

Teaching Artist Leah Padow's visual arts class at Playa del Rey Elementary; Photo generously taken by Alex de Cordoba | Courtesy of P.S. Arts
Teaching Artist Leah Padow's visual arts class at Playa del Rey Elementary | Photo generously taken by Alex de Cordoba, courtesy of P.S. Arts.

In a spacious, well-lit studio in the old Seeley Furniture building at the border of Atwater Village and Glendale, Theo Marsh and his classmate Ethan Iyer carefully rip colored tape and stick strips onto paper to form a floor plan for a house. This week at The Cool-School Los Angeles they're learning about architectural floor plans. Last week, they were constructing houses out of cardboard; before that they were forming colorful sculptures using cubes. For over an hour every Sunday morning, their instructor Shannon Green magically, it seems, holds the boys' attention with his informative but light-hearted lessons on perspective, shading, printmaking, color theory and architecture.

For Theo, this class is his only weekly art class. He is a 4th grader attending a Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school that does not offer visual arts instruction with a professional art teacher. His school is not alone. In 2007-2008, nationwide cuts in arts education caused many public schools to close down or minimize their art programs, sacrificing music, dance, theater and the visual arts to focus on subjects that are part of standardized testing. According to Cristina Pacheco, Advocacy Manager for the arts advocacy group, Arts for LA, a formidable force in reversing this trend in arts education in Southern California, the situation is improving. "Funding to school districts in the Los Angeles area has increased," Pacheco explains, "so we are seeing arts education being revitalized across the county." However, many schools have yet to rebuild their visual arts programs so thousands of public school children throughout the region still receive minimal arts education or none at all.

Theo Marsh and Ethan Iyer taking a children's art class at The Cool School Los Angeles, Atwater Village, Los Angeles
Theo Marsh and Ethan Iyer taking a children's art class at The Cool School Los Angeles, Atwater Village, Los Angeles.

In the region's different communities, the gap in public school education is being filled in a number of ways. In low-income communities in Southern California, artists and other concerned citizens have joined forces to establish a number of non-profit organizations to provide much-needed arts education for public-school children. One of the most successful of these, Inner-City Arts, near skid-row in Downtown Los Angeles has been providing arts education for at-risk kids for over twenty years now in response to similar hefty cuts to arts education in the 1970s and 1980s. Since its founding in 1989 by artist Bob Bates and entrepreneur Irwin Jaeger, the arts organization has partnered with LAUSD and local arts organizations to provide instruction for many thousands of elementary, middle and high school students in the visual, performing and media arts, both during the school day, after school and on weekends.

Venice-based P.S. Arts, another organization established in response to earlier arts education cuts, has a mission to improve the lives of children by providing arts education to underserved schools and communities. Unlike Inner-City Arts, where most of the children served come to their state-of-the-art facility, P.S. ARTS provides arts education services in public schools alongside all the regular academic subjects. It partners with schools in Southern and Central California to provide yearlong arts education by professional educators in dance, visual arts, music, and theater arts to every child in a school during the regular school day. It also holds arts festivals, family art nights, arts-to-go projects, and it recently acquired the award-winning organization Inside Out Community Arts, which provides after-school arts programs to underserved communities.

Student Art Work from Teaching Artist Leah Padow's visual arts class at Playa del Rey Elementary | Photo generously taken by Alex de Cordoba Courtesy of P.S. Arts
Student Art Work from Teaching Artist Leah Padow's visual arts class at Playa del Rey Elementary | Photo generously taken by Alex de Cordoba Courtesy of P.S. Arts.

But what about children who attend public schools in those communities not considered underserved? Some children in local public school districts are from families who cannot afford private schools but whose children do not qualify for arts education from non-profit organizations like those mentioned above. These children are currently receiving no arts education. "We've created a situation," says Kristen Paglia, Executive Director for Education and Programs at P.S. ARTS, "where the average family is not being served by the public schools. They are being denied the right to basic education - and I consider art a part of basic education." She explains that an organization like P.S. ARTS can serve as many as 20,000 children each year, but there are more than 640,000 children in the LAUSD. Typically, only Title 1 schools, in which at least 40 percent of students are from low-income families, qualify for their free arts instruction programs. Recently, under pressure from parents, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District requested that P.S. ARTS expand the program that they provide in the district's Title 1 schools to the whole of their district, an expansion that was paid for with funds raised by the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundation, namely parents. Starting this September, the organization will provide yearlong arts education for eleven non-Title 1 schools in the district. Paglia says that other school districts may follow the example of SMMUSD and hire service providers like P.S. ARTS to furnish their schools with arts classes.

Self-Portrait by teenage student Gabi vanderVelde-Kraft, 2014, gouache on panel, monochromatic self-portrait, 9x12
Self-Portrait by teenage student Gabi vanderVelde-Kraft, 2014, gouache on panel, monochromatic self-portrait, 9 x 12.

Meanwhile, in other neighborhoods where art classes are still not provided in public schools, some of the need is met by artist-educators like Shannon Green and their small studio schools. Green and his wife Janna Stark had worked for over 15 years as artists and art educators before opening their own school The Cool School Los Angeles in Atwater Village in 2013. "We saw a need for a local art school both to provide instruction to kids and adults but also to create work for artists like ourselves," explains Green. Their Cool School seems to be part of a greater movement to provide much-needed art education to "middle-class underserved" school children. Other small local studios in the Los Angeles area include Create in Atwater Village and The Institute for Visual Arts in Silver Lake, and Purple Twig in Eagle Rock. On the West Side, kids can take classes at studios such as Kids Artistic Sense in West L.A. and Wondertree Kids in El Segundo, while Paint Lab in Santa Monica specializes in painting classes for all ages. Downtown, SCI-Arc and UCLA alums, Jaine Sanchez, Brett Phillips, and Mishal Hashmi, recently opened a design and ceramics studio for adults and kids called Hand and Machine Studio in the L.A. Arts District. Now, throughout the Los Angeles area, classes in drawing, painting, multimedia art, ceramics, design and mosaic-making are available a few blocks away from many of our homes.

Harrison Andrews painting on cloth at the Summer Art Camp Puppets and Paul Klee | Courtesy of The Cool School Los Angeles
Harrison Andrews painting on cloth at the Summer Art Camp Puppets and Paul Klee | Photo: Courtesy of The Cool School Los Angeles.

Budding artist Harrison Andrews, a 3rd grader in a nearby public school, is another regular student at The Cool School Los Angeles. His mother, Patty Jausoro is a strong believer in the importance of arts education. "We understand schools are doing their best with the resources they have," she admits, "and we love the art projects like collages he does at school. But if we want him to learn the basic principles and skills from an art teacher, we have to supplement the shortfall with private classes." She adds, "We're thinking of starting him on a formal music program too. The arts are not just another fun side activity for us. We feel that arts education is vital to our child's development."

As new injections of funds help public schools rebuild their arts programs, non-profit organizations like Inner-City Arts and P.S. ARTS and neighborhood art studio-schools are helping to fill in the gaps lefts by budget cuts in public schools.

Mixed Media Painting by Theo Marsh | Courtesy of The Cool School Los Angeles
Mixed media painting by Theo Marsh. | Photo: Courtesy of The Cool School Los Angeles.
Kyla Woolard painting on cloth at the Summer Art Camp Puppets and Paul Klee | Courtesy of The Cool School Los Angeles
Kyla Woolard painting on cloth at the Summer Art Camp Puppets and Paul Klee | Photo: Courtesy of The Cool School Los Angeles.

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