A New Hope for Arts Education

By Oscar T. Basulto
Staff Writer

I quit teaching middle school almost ten years ago because I grew tired of dealing with what I perceived as a lack of support from school and district administrators.

Soon after, I stumbled upon Casa 0101, a small non-profit theatre in Boyle Heights.  I joined a writing class which culminated in the participants performing each other’s work on stage for an audience.  That class led to another, which led to stage managing gigs, which led to an assortment of writing and acting credits that now comprise my career in theatre.  Though it has not yet been a financially viable career, I remain dedicated to improving as an artist and one day making art a sustainable career.

However, there are times when I miss my old job and wish I had found a way to deal with the bureaucracy in a more constructive manner.

To me, the classroom is a sacred space where the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another goes beyond the passing along of facts and figures.  A good teacher is more of a learning facilitator than a depositor of information.  In school, educators build a young person’s capacity to take what was unknown and not only make it known, but help them to apply this new knowledge in a manner that will be meaningful in their lives.  That is why knowledge is power.

So I jumped at the chance when, last spring, my friend and fellow artist, Jeanette Godoy invited me to be a guest judge for her theatre production classes at Roosevelt High School.  The students had been working on performance projects for a few weeks and were ready to present.

What I saw reaffirmed all the reasons I love art and value education:  Magic happens when the two are brought together and shared with a community often lacking in quality access to both.  When given the chance, and proper guidance, anyone can distill their experiences into compelling and beautiful expressions in word and movement.  I will particularly remember the Girl in Purple and her bold, poetic declarations about an alcoholic father.  Jeanette later told me this young woman started the class as one of many painfully shy and quiet kids who found a way to use their voices within the safe confines of the classroom.  “They, felt safe and liberated after a day of dealing with whatever commitments they have, academic or otherwise, to step away from [those commitments], address it and let it go.”

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Staff Writer Oscar Basulto and the students of Ms. Jeanette Godoy’s theater class at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, CA. Photo by Jeannete Godoy.

But the benefits of this class and art education in general go beyond the therapeutic.  In, Champions of Change: The Impact of Arts on Learning, edited by Edward Fiske, evidence compiled by various researchers indicates that engagement in the arts correlates with high academic achievement.  This is especially crucial for LAUSD schools, which struggle with low student achievement and graduation rates.

Additionally, the theatre production classes were taught by experienced artists who developed curricula to address each facet of bringing a play to the stage, including writing, acting and directing, and technical and design aspects such as lighting and costume design.  Teaching the class afforded these artists the opportunity to fuse their love of theater with their commitment to build community. In addition, they were able to earn beyond a living wage and benefits in the process. It is a luxury many artists do not enjoy, as most artists make less than $7,000 a year from their art.

Over the recent summer, I contacted Jeanette to discuss possible collaborations with her incoming students and Casa 0101’s theatre education programs.  Perhaps they could continue their training at Casa by taking more advanced courses in theatre and/or apply the class’ curriculum in actual theatrical productions.  In my wildest optimism I pictured young people all over Boyle Heights emerging as committed teatristas.  Some were sure to go on and create important work, win Pulitzer Prizes and Academy Awards.  Instead, I was shocked and saddened to learn that theatre production, as well as the majority of other arts classes, had been discontinued at Roosevelt for the 2012-2013 academic year due to budget cuts.

My thoughts immediately turned toward all the students like the Girl in Purple who would lose out on the opportunity to take art classes. I wondered if they would find a creative outlet to not only deal with their personal difficulties, but to also reap the associated benefits of an arts education; Not to mention the dedicated teachers who were gainfully employed in an endeavor which was meaningful to them both as artists and educators, and are now out of a job.

We will never know the positive impact these discontinued classes would have had on the lives of those who could not take advantage of them before these recent cuts.  Though we are all responsible for our own destiny, when it comes to young people, their choices are informed by the manner in which they are raised and educated.   It is a lost year for both the students and the teachers.

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This past October the Los Angeles School Board took a quantum step in the right direction and unanimously passed the Educational Equity, Student Achievement, and Mastery of 21st Century Workforce Skills through Arts at the Core resolution authored by board member Nury Martinez. It establishes art education as a core subject within the curriculum, meaning that it is mandatory for all students to take arts classes.  Proficiency in the arts will be deemed as important for graduating well rounded individuals as is proficiency in mathematics, language arts and other traditional core subjects.

The resolution also puts an immediate halt to further cuts into the arts education budget and pledges to restore funding to match or exceed levels of the 2007-2008 academic year.  Additionally, it calls for the recruiting, hiring, and training of highly qualified art teachers.  This is truly a revolutionary development for the future of arts education in Los Angeles – home to the second largest school district as well as the largest population of artists in the country.  Students will now receive the prolonged effects of sustained arts instruction, which will help lay a solid foundation in making the arts a more legitimate and viable career choice for students.  Those who do not choose to become artists can learn to value the artistic process and those who work within it, possibly becoming future patrons of the arts.

The implementation and long lasting effects of this resolution are yet to be seen.  But given what we know about academic achievement and arts education, its prospects are more than promising.  It might even compel me to return to the classroom.  That is also yet to be seen.  I enjoy working with youth in an extracurricular setting.  Plus, the resolution cannot be viewed as a culminating event but as a turning point on the funding of arts in this country.  It is a step toward establishing reforms in thought and practice.

Schools are training grounds preparing students for the responsibilities of the workforce and of responsible citizenship.  It would be short sighted to prepare students in the arts but not have jobs in their field waiting for them after graduation.  After all, even under the best circumstances, there are only so many teaching jobs to go around.  Education is a high stakes endeavor of which we are all stakeholders.  These public schools belong to us and the students who attend them depend on a vigilant public to ensure they are provided with the best schooling and preparation possible.

I often think of artist Ricky Vian’s now famous slogan, “Life without art is stupid.”  If it is true, then a life full of art would be the complete opposite.  And a school district full of art instruction is an intelligent choice.

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