Seattle school officials are using a $1 million grant to try to craft a comprehensive, K-12 arts curriculum — something that the district hasn't had in decades, if ever.
Kate Baker has gotten used to the screams and squeals that greet her every day.
Baker holds a near-celebrity status at Beacon Hill’s Maple Elementary for a simple reason: She’s the art teacher.
“They’re always so excited,” the 31-year-old said after a recent school day. “They want to know if they have art that day. Because they get joy from it.”
Despite her popularity with students, Baker — like other art teachers across the city, state and country — fears her job may not exist next year. Amid budget cuts and an all-consuming focus on raising math and reading test scores, the arts have increasingly been pushed to the side despite their demonstrated academic and social benefits.
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In Seattle, where a tradition of delegating decisions to individual schools holds sway, students’ access to the arts varies widely — and often depends on parent fundraising.
“If your school has money or if you have a principal who’s a real proponent of the arts, then you get it,” Baker said. “And if you’re not in one of those two groups, then you don’t.”
More than 20 percent of the city’s public-elementary schools fall into the latter category, according to an internal school-district survey that will be released next month. About half of middle- and high-school students are enrolled in an arts class, according to the survey.
In general, white students in wealthy areas are more likely to have access.
Seattle Public Schools officials recently received a $1 million grant from The Wallace Foundation to confront that reality.
The money comes with a January 2013 deadline for the district to develop a districtwide arts curriculum — essentially, minimum requirements for visual arts, music, dance and theater — as well as strategies to enlist support from principals and community partners.
But the effort, the latest in a string of attempts to improve the district’s arts program, faces challenges — including uncertainty about where to get funding to implement any plan.
“I appreciate that they’re doing it, I appreciate that they’re getting input, but oh my goodness,” said Laura Martin, a parent who attended a meeting soliciting community input on the plan last week. “We have so far to go.”
The process comes as local arts advocates say the widely debated focus on measurable outcomes in public education is starting to endanger after-school programs.
The list of organizations qualified to receive funding through Seattle’s $232 million Families and Education Levy, released earlier this month, did not include any arts groups — mostly because the nine that applied don’t closely track their statistical effect on academic achievement.
Mayor Mike McGinn has promised to maintain funding to the organization most affected by the move, Arts Corps, but the group’s executive director called the city’s focus on stats demoralizing.
“It felt like a real step backwards,” said Elizabeth Whitford.
When Robert Eyerman moved to Seattle as a seventh-grader, he suffered from a debilitating lack of self-esteem. It was so bad, he said, that he “probably wouldn’t have even had the confidence to pick up the phone.”
Seven years later, Eyerman is a 20-year-old Bellevue College junior with a 3.6 GPA and an interest in medicine. He credits his success to a break-dancing class that helped his confidence.
His story is not unique.
Research shows arts education can help foster many skills, from self-expression to problem-solving, said Leslie Herrenkohl, an educational-psychology professor at the University of Washington.
Herrenkohl said social and emotional learning is critical to child development, but it is being minimized because it is hard to measure.
In addition, many education advocates argue that math and reading should be the focus of school, especially in low-income areas, because they are basic skills required for adult life.
State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, Whatcom County, said art should not be considered a part of basic education, though he does not doubt its potential power.
Few people do.
So if it’s so popular, why is arts education so limited and uneven in Seattle?
The answer, school-district employees say, dates back to 1975, when the district suffered a double levy failure. Among other responses, officials cut the districtwide arts program and reduced discretionary funding given to principals — money often spent on the arts.
Officials never restored that funding, said Cathy Thompson, the district’s top academic officer.
Schools still receive some discretionary money but, depending on how many students they have, it’s often only enough for two or three extra staffers. A physical-education teacher is required. That leaves principals to decide between hiring an arts teacher or a full-time librarian, a reading specialist or any number of other options.
Parent groups have stepped in to help, creating widely different arts experiences for students.
Some elementaries have multiple art teachers or artists-in-residence. Some high schools have special outside programs in drama (Roosevelt) or jazz (Garfield) paid for by hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. And, according to the internal survey, 14 schools have no certified arts teacher at all.
The problems are not unique to Seattle, said Anne Banks of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Banks cited a recent statewide survey that found that 63 percent of principals are dissatisfied with arts instruction in their schools.
Several districts have cut arts in response to state budget cuts over the past three years, she said.
Arts suffered less in Seattle than in other areas, officials said. In fact, the district’s programs are in relatively good shape compared to neighboring districts, several of which reported not employing a single arts-focused staffer in their central offices.
The director of Seattle’s arts program doesn’t think that’s anything to brag about.
Carri Campbell came to the district in July 2007 as part of a partnership with City Hall. Her mission: to create a comprehensive K-12 arts curriculum — a need that intensified with a new assignment plan that pushes students toward the school closest to them rather than allowing them to choose among a variety of schools.
“We need to be able to make some guarantees to our families at every school,” Campbell said.
The Wallace Foundation grant represents her best chance yet. But it’s a daunting task, Campbell admitted.
A similar effort in Los Angeles, also funded by The Wallace Foundation, took 10 years to complete, she said.
And even if the planning is accomplished here, there’s no guarantee there will be money to fund it. Campbell is hoping the Wallace Foundation will follow up with more funding but can’t count on it.
Those that recognize the challenges include Seattle School Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum, who said, “It’s always interesting when we do a lot of talking and then somebody tries to translate it into something.”
But arts advocates said they’re confident that, after decades of fragmentation, they can do it.
“This can be done, but it’s going to take time,” said Ryan Schmidt, an arts teacher at South Shore K-8. “We’re going to have to build it. But eventually it’s going to be awesome.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.