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Toward a Complete Education: LAUSD and Arts at the Core

Courtesy of Charlie Jensen.

In partnership with Arts for LA, to help communities throughout Los Angeles County advocate for greater investment in the arts.

On October 9, Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education member Nury Martinez introduced a visionary and sweeping resolution to establish the arts as part of the district's core curriculum, placing it alongside math, reading, history, and science as essential components of a student's K-12 education. The resolution, titled "Student Achievement, Educational Equity, and Mastery of 21st Century Workforce Skills through Arts at the Core," makes a comprehensive argument for the arts' place at the table, citing the wealth of research on the impact of arts-rich education on student success within and beyond their K-12 education. After hearing public comment from actor and esteemed collector of Latin American art Cheech Marin; actress, philanthropist, and parent Monica Rosenthal; former teacher of the year Carlos Lauchu; Boeing executive Jim Herr; Los Angeles County Arts for All's director Denise Grande; education funder Matty Sterenchock; and students from Carlos Santana Arts Academy, the board responded by approving the resolution unanimously.

While the resolution itself is not the destination -- equitable, standards-based arts education for all students is -- it is a monumental step toward the goal. The resolution itself calls for a period of planning culminating in an "Arts at the Core" plan, an outline of how the district will ensure the arts are integrated into the curriculum. "Arts at the Core" will be significant because it includes the ways in which the arts -- like the resolution itself -- are not the destination, but instead are used as tools to reinforce learning by complementing lessons in other core subjects. Additionally, "Arts at the Core" will help close the opportunity and achievement gap for all our most vulnerable students -- those living in poverty, who currently account for 80% of LAUSD's enrollment -- by providing pathways to graduation for these students by lower absenteeism, higher engagement with coursework, and increased self-confidence. These results are widely documented in research exploring the impact of an education that includes access to the arts.

LAUSD and the Board of Education still have much work to do to make the resolution's points a reality for their 700,000 students, including coming up with ways to ensure arts funding never reaches below its current level. But this, too, is part of the resolution's next steps. In a year when education funding in general was threatened by what many viewed as "competing" ballot propositions and amputating "trigger cuts," the Board of Education's decision is even more important. And now that Proposition 30 offers all California districts at least one year of breathing room in which to work, the road to crafting the plan has opened.

Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Jensen.
Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Jensen.

And yet it's the attitude about arts education funding, widely held, that continues to be the problem. At worst, arts education opponents classify it as a waste of time, while even our allies sometimes seem to admit it's a "frill." Imagine yourself thinking a school district to be reckless, confused, or downright foolish for declaring science a core discipline in the face of financial uncertainty. The thought itself is laughable. Naturally, the "truly" core disciplines never face cuts because, at the end of the day, they aren't considered expendable. That LAUSD's resolution is national news points to the wider attitude problem we have about education -- not only in Los Angeles County, but in America -- that a limited education is a complete education.

I'm going to allege now LAUSD's resolution is not about arts education. It was about redefining what core curriculum really is. It does not only imply arts education is valuable; it actually makes math, science, literacy, history and the arts equal. Furthermore, they are inextricable. Just as we would never think to remove "reading education" from our curriculum, we must now shape our attitude to view the arts in the same way.

Previously, we viewed schools choosing to provide arts education to its students as "well off." Their students we considered "fortunate." Even as more and more arts participation experiences were subtracted from students' lives, we'd look to the schools able to provide these services with wonder and gratitude.

But now, that attitude is one for the old guard. What LAUSD has done is define what a "complete education" is for the students in their district; an education without limits. LAUSD's action on the resolution means students who do not receive arts education receive an incomplete education. And this is the true revolution of their action. No person in America will allow a child in his or her life to receive an incomplete education. The idea alone is an outrage.

Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Jensen.
Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Jensen.

And yet, for many students in districts throughout Los Angeles County, this is still the reality.

LAUSD stepped forward not only as a public education leader in the county by passing this resolution, but in the nation as well. In the next several months to the next few years, I believe we will see more and more districts taking up the mantle of "complete education" for their students. Already, arts education advocates in New York City and administrators in Chicago have taken note and want to find ways to bring this resolution to the nation's largest school districts.

For advocates of arts education everywhere, this is a watershed moment. This is our opportunity to strip away our limited identity as "arts education advocates," which implies we have a special interest outside the norm, but instead become advocates of complete education for all students. When we show up to make our case, our opponents see arts education advocates as a special interest. We want something unique, something outside the norm, something that costs money, something that takes away resources and opportunity from something else. It forces arts education opponents to make decisions they don't want to make. They are less likely to be supportive of our message.

Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Jensen.
Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Jensen.

When we show up as advocates of complete education, however, we invite everyone to be on our side. We invite opposition to arts-rich education to articulate why a limited or incomplete curriculum is appropriate in our schools. Furthermore -- and this is likely our most important opportunity -- we make ourselves the ally of everyone advocating for education, from those supporting the value of STEM to those calling for more physical education to even those advocating for better support for low-income and at-risk students.

And this is because an arts-rich education supports everyone. It doesn't just create artists. It creates journalists, mayors, CEOs, scientists, stay at home parents, members of the armed forces, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and professional athletes.

The powerful action taken by the LAUSD Board of Education on October 9 will create ripples that move outward to touch the lives of students across the United States. And, as people invested in the future of our communities, the future of our young people, we must let those ripples reach each of us as well, shifting our identities from advocates for arts education to advocates for a complete education for every student in every school.

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