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Bringing the arts back to school

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The arts and culture are important to education. The state legislature and the University of California agree. So it's shocking to note that as K-12 students head back to school this fall, most of them won't be studying dance, music, art and drama.

Why should we care? In 1926, the renowned civil rights campaigner and educationist W.E.B. Dubois posed a similar question to activists who were creating the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People. He noted people's discomfort discussing the arts and social justice together in the same breath. Coming out of the shadow of colonization and slavery, he believed that by helping expand the imagination, the arts can create a new society that values diversity. This issue is as significant today as it was to Dubois 80 years ago.

According to a recent report, 96% of California's middle-school students don't have access to all the arts. This bleak statistic not only points to a crisis in quality education but raises issues of social justice.

No one wants to deny arts education to K-12 students. The state of California developed policies and standards in the visual and performing arts as benchmarks for student learning. It liberated new arts education funding for school districts from San Diego to Crescent City. The UC system includes a year of visual and performing arts in its admissions requirements.

There are three reasons why we have fallen so short of this goal. The first is historical and economic: New funds are being distributed evenly across an unequal educational landscape. But more for everyone won't correct pre-existing inequalities. Wealthier public schools raise private funds from local PTAs, education foundations and businesses. Low-income schools often don't have this infrastructure in place.

The second reason is structural: There are no teaching credentials in dance or drama, as there are in art and music. That means there are no full-time teachers for ongoing study and mentorship — a vital link to visiting arts teachers and partnership programs.

Finally, when schools make difficult curricular and hiring decisions, meeting basic literacy standards often works against the arts. There is no reason why this should be so, given that literacy and creativity go hand-in-hand very well. As one middle-school ESL teacher excitedly told me after participating in a salsa/language arts residency through the ArtsBridge program at UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture: "This is the first time my students have ever had an elective. Salsa dancing gave them something to write about!"

Sparking and supporting the creativity of youth require recognizing history and forging pathways for creativity that reach from kindergarten through graduate school. There is a crying need for long-term partnerships among urban schools, community colleges, four-year universities, local art centers and the creative industries, especially in communities struggling to find their balance in environments made precarious by poverty.

The UC system has a crucial role to play in this process. At stake is nothing less than the dreams of our diverse ancestors who understood human imagination as our common treasure and birthright.

Shimshon-Santo directs the ArtsBridge program at the School of the Arts and Architecture. For more information, see ArtsBridge.

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