Scroll through El Monte City School District’s Facebook page and you’ll find students have recently visited the Getty Museum, put on choir performances, danced together and even learned how to pluck an entire song on the violin in complete unison.
March is Arts Education Month and while the annual recognition of the importance of quality school arts programs is a time to celebrate and show support, it also marks a full calendar year since many California schools began distance learning.
Made evident by El Monte City SD’s social media posts, the Southern California district’s schools have managed to adapt their programming with great success. When campuses closed in mid-March 2020, Superintendent Dr. Maribel Garcia said they quickly got to work transitioning academic offerings to a virtual setting, acclimating their meal program, lending out furniture so families could create learning spaces at home and distributing supplies.
“It wasn’t just about Chromebooks and [WiFi] hotspots for us, it was about pencils and papers — the very basic things,” Garcia said. “We knew right then and there that crayons have to be a part of it and art supplies have to be a part of it because the commitment stays with us whether we’re in the classroom or outside the classroom.”
Regular distributions have continued with some parents even getting in on the fun by doing a Valentine’s Day-themed craft during a meeting with the principal from one El Monte City USD school in February.
Garcia’s district, which won a Golden Bell Award in 2020 for its Musical Theater Supporting and Enhancing Academic Excellence program, has specialized arts courses and clubs as well as professional development opportunities for teachers and educators at each site that can assist others with incorporating art into their respective subjects.
“We want to see art in math classes, we want to see art in our physical education classes, we want to see art across our curriculum,” Garcia said of their interdisciplinary approach. “Access to the arts from a young age plays a very significant role in terms of development and as kids get older it continues to be a way for them to express themselves and understand the world, diversity and culture. That’s what we’re intending to do.”
Though she’s missing in-person performances, Garcia said assemblies and other performances are still taking place via platforms like Google Meets. At a local event in December, Garcia got emotional while watching a video submitted by one of her elementary classes where students talked about how art makes them feel. “It was so neat to hear our students make the connection of how art was helping them with this moment in time and how healing it is and how it was helping them navigate their emotions,” Garcia recalled. “It was so powerful. It’s just a reminder of why we need to continue funding the arts regardless of our budgets.”
Making funding a priority
While arts education isn’t always a main concern to California schools when times are tough and money is tight, El Monte City SD has remained consistent in its efforts.
“The arts are very important to our district,” Garcia stated. “The [school] board has been very committed for years in developing a sustainable plan to bring the arts to life in our school district. The ebb and flow of budgets can sometimes determine what programming looks like but there’s a commitment here to really make sure we can sustain the arts.”
Anne Bown-Crawford, executive director of the California Arts Council, is no stranger to the budget issue. “The visual and performing arts are a core academic yet when budgets get cut … arts programs are the first ones cut,” she explained. “The arts provide a way for kids to connect to each other and they simply show up more, they participate more. It increases student engagement and participation whether it’s virtual or in person … It increases attendance and achievement.”
Just as important, according to Bown-Crawford, is that arts education prepares students for jobs, especially in a state where the creative economy is a major player.
With industry members like museums embracing distance learning and producing online experiences, schools have access to learning opportunities they may not have otherwise. The climate has “fast tracked the equity discussion that many of us have been involved in for a long time,” Bown-Crawford observed.
El Monte City SD is an example of a place where arts education has long been valued and leveraged to benefit its students. For some, however, the pandemic has made arts education more accessible. “All of a sudden there are these digital experiences and as long as you have broadband access kids’ worlds are opening up in a way they haven’t before,” Bown-Crawford said. “I hope that that remains, and I think it will.”