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LA Unified’s new Arts Equity Index finds ‘art poverty’ in district

Vanessa Romo | March 19, 2015



Dance students at the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts

Dance students at the Ramone C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts

LA Unified officials yesterday unveiled results of the Arts Equity Index, the most comprehensive arts inventory the district has ever taken, and the findings show the district has a bad case of “art poverty.”

Very few of the district’s 650,000 students have access to robust and uninterrupted arts programs from elementary school through high school, the index found. And the poorest kids have it the worst.

“What we find ourselves doing sometimes is putting the fewest amount of dollars in the schools where the students need it the most,” Rory Pullens, the district’s head of arts education, told the audience at a “State of the Arts” event hosted by Arts for LA at Berendo Middle School.

Pullens, a charismatic speaker who called himself “a theater kid,” combed through the results of the Index and LA Unified’s declining support for the arts for over an hour, keeping the audience in rapt attention despite the dismal data.

The Index measures student access to arts instruction using a filter of 12 factors that include local income levels, the number of foster youth and English Language Learners enrolled at a school, existing arts programs and professional development for teachers in arts pedagogy.

Based on the data, a school can fall into one of six categories that measure availability of arts education: non-existent, basic, emerging, developing, strong, and excelling. The outcomes of the index were calculated using principal’s responses to a survey. In all, 639 schools participated.

Sixty percent of elementary schools received an “emerging” ranking or lower on the index, which rated each school on a point system ranging from zero (non-existent) to 62 (“excelling”). Only 13 schools register as “excelling.”

The scoring for middle and high school is slightly different, with a maximum score of 73. Fifty-four percent schools registered at “emerging” or below line. Only five made it into the “excelling” category.

Four of the 10 most underserved elementary school are located in board District 1, an area that spans much of south LA, stretching north to Hollywood and south to Gardena. Four of the best arts programs are within board District 4, which covers a swath of the Westside from Hollywood to Pacific Palisades.

Board District 3 in the northwest San Fernando Valley contains three of the most underserved and top rated high schools. Although many of the top 10 programs are either magnet schools or have arts concentrations.

“It is our goal that within a three-year period all schools will be at the ‘developing’ level or higher,” Pullens declared.

Another ubiquitous problem identified in the study is that arts education programs are not available as students change schools. For example, vocal music programs are popular among elementary school students, but few middle schools offer it as an option, and only about 14 percent of high schools continue a vocal program.

“This is not a good investment,” Pullens said.

A key component to expanding arts instruction, according to Pullens, are changes in funding, requiring what he calls a “paradigm shift”  in the way the district pays for arts education.

Arts funding is currently based on student enrollment. Under this system, large schools have more to spend while smaller campuses receive very little financial support. Further, the district has, if not forbidden, then strongly discouraged school principals from allocating Title I federal dollars generated by low-income students to subsidize arts instruction.

That’s changing. Beginning next year, principals will have the freedom to redirect this money to integrate the arts in core academic classes to support academic achievement.

“We are not playing Robin Hood where we steal from the rich and give to the poor,” Pullens said. “We want to lift those who are underdeveloped, who are under-resourced to that level of excelling.”

The Index is the latest effort by the district to improve arts instruction, which has been decimated through years of economic recession. At its highest, the budget reached $48 million under former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Today, it’s been reduced to $18 million.

In October 2012, the school board unanimously approved a measure declaring the arts a core subject. It also prohibited further cuts to the program and directed the district to hire more arts teachers and increase student exposure to the arts.

“Though we may have been a little slow moving, we are ready to launch into moving forward in arts education,” Pullens said.

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