Back-Door Arts Programs 

As school districts cut arts funding to focus on basics, advocates of humanities struggle to find a way in class.

Guitarist David Sturdevant was nervous about his audience. They were tough. They were unforgiving. And they were five years old.

He was working for the first time as an artist-in-residence in Caren Nelson's preschool class at Washington School last year. "I was apprehensive at first about working with such young children," said Sturdevant, who also plays in the jazz and blues-style San Francisco Medicine Ball Band. "I thought they wouldn't be interested in the music I do; I thought I wouldn't be able to keep them involved. But it turned out they were very receptive to all sorts of music."

The kids thought singing and testing real instruments was fun, but there was a deeper purpose too. Nelson says the music helps kids master language arts faster. Memorizing lines for performance and making up little songs are all about picking up prereading skills.

Sturdevant's visit was one of many efforts by professional artists to introduce art into classrooms. All around the Bay Area, artists and teachers are finding ways to sneak art, music, and dance back into schools despite state budget cuts and state education mandates that put the arts on the backburner. When schools have less time and money to spend on the arts, an artist-in-residence, usually paid for by outside grants and fund-raisers, is one of the ways that schools try to preserve art in the classroom.

Around the East Bay, various organizations dedicate themselves to bringing artists and schoolchildren together. Through the Visual Arts Language Arts project that funded Sturdevant, jazz violinist India Cooke leads kids in writing musical scores and performing their compositions, and bookbinder Alastair Johnston teaches traditional Japanese and Chinese techniques for sewing together book spines. Through the Museum of Children's Art, Kara Fortune demonstrates jazz music infused with Santerian spirituality, and sculptor Eesuu leads high school students in creating traditional African sculpture.

In Oakland, Debbie Koppman prepares for another year as artist-in-residence at Sequoia Elementary, planning projects to work on with her students. This year, her fifth-graders have been invited to participate in the Day of the Dead show at the Oakland Museum, and she's planning to teach them to make traditional salt-dough puppets to honor the ancestors. Koppman, who works in a variety of media, including mixed-media sculpture, printmaking, handmade paper, masks, puppets, and theater sets, has been artist-in-residence at the school for seven years.

When she first began, Sequoia was under construction. Instead of having a dedicated room to teach in, Koppman ran from classroom to classroom, pushing a little cart loaded with art supplies. After a year, she thought she'd burn herself out. But now she has a room where she can teach children how to sculpt, craft, and use papier-mâché to create giant, movable puppets. And every June, she leads the whole school in a parade through Oakland's Dimond District, with the students carrying their puppet creations. "The kids get a great sense of themselves as inventors," Koppman said. "They learn they're not just little containers teachers fill up with things that they need to spit out. And when I work with them, I get a sense that I'm not just some isolated person working in a studio without any connection to the world. I'm part of a community."

For similar reasons, many artists worry that California's emphasis on pure academics and standardized testing shortchanges students. "We're bankrupting ourselves because we'll only have a generation that can pass tests," said Gina Moreland, executive director of Habitot in Berkeley, which helps teachers incorporate open-ended arts into their classrooms. "Twenty years ago, we had music, art, and dance in the public schools. Kids got a very enriched curriculum. Now they just have tests. Schools got very good at aligning their curriculum with tests and making gains, but they don't test the things we need as a civilization. At the root of it, everyone wants kids to do well. But a lot of schools don't embrace the arts because they don't see how they will contribute to learning."

The single biggest problem facing artists in schools, though, is funding. When schools have no budget for arts, they depend on outside funds. If a school has a savvy fund-raiser or an expert at writing grant proposals, it might squeak through with enough money to keep some arts in the classrooms. "We've had to scale back a little because of budget cuts," said Naomi Kawamura, director of school programs at the Museum of Children's Art. MOCHA, as it is known, runs training and development programs for art teachers, as well as sponsoring thirty artists-in-residence this upcoming school year. "It's not a healthy climate for the arts when schools are entirely focused on literacy and testing. Art seems like a luxury rather than an integral part of education."

Many find it difficult to convince parents and teachers that art should stay on the schedule since it doesn't directly affect test grades. But some art programs, like the Visual Arts Language Arts Project, point to research showing a link between arts and academics -- that kids who experience a wide variety of creative arts generally do better. "It's difficult to bring in arts when the budget prohibits anything beyond language and math," said Caterina Rindi. In 2002, Rindi, then program coordinator at Richmond's Nystrom Magnet School, invited the project to work with students in its performing arts and technical program. Nystrom received a federal grant to bring in shadow puppets, jazz poetry, keyboardists, and muralists.

Research has found evidence that specific art forms support specific kinds of thinking and learning (such as the link between music and improved spatial reasoning sometimes called the "Mozart Effect"). But even though general causal connections between studying the arts and improvement in SAT scores, grades, or reading scores have not been found, many academics agree that the fate of arts in the schools should not depend on the outcome of such research -- that art enhances learning even if it doesn't improve test scores.

Even without a direct link between art and academics, some artists see value in just giving kids a creative outlet. Those who struggle in reading or math, who feel stigmatized as "dumb," can get a much-needed boost in self-confidence when they're allowed the freedom to create and experiment in art. "Some of these kids struggle in school," said Augusta Talbot, a visual artist who taught shadow puppetry at Nystrom School. "They were excited to get something with a different approach. Having had troubles myself in school, I'm a big advocate of art in the classroom. I was a late learner with reading, but I was a good artist and that kept me going. When I had to read out loud in second grade, I was just mortified. When I see kids in that same situation, I just think 'God, that's how I was. '" At the end of the last school year, she was surprised to receive a letter from a recent graduate of Sequoia -- with the simple message, "Thank you so much for believing in me."

"She wasn't a kid who had an easy time with anything, but I didn't even know that," Koppman recalled. "Part of it is when kids come in to work on creating something, they all just have fun creating. Some kids aren't good at academics, and art projects are a great leveler. A lot of the time, I don't even have any idea which kids have trouble in other classes."

But even after seven years, Koppman's position is still uncertain. "I know I'll be there for one more year at least," she said. "But everything depends on funding." Her residency originally received funding from the California Arts Council, but in recent years a grant from the City of Oakland has paid for supplies. However, more than sixty Oakland elementary schools are all vying for the same art grants. "I don't want this all to fall apart," she said. "But money is so tenuous right now, that if I wasn't here organizing it, it would all fall apart. To keep something sustainable, you need commitment from all different levels -- district, city, state. If not, then it's just you out there, and when you leave it's all over."

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