Ten years ago, the centerpiece of approximately $4 million in cuts to our district’s budget was the “temporary” elimination of the 7th period in the junior high schools, reducing electives from two per student to one. Teachers, particularly music and theater teachers, were vehemently outspoken about the disaster this painted for the future.
Today, the junior high schools have become a bottleneck for arts education in the district, and the high school programs are continuing to wither as a result.
Two cultures live side by side in Santa Barbara, painfully evident in our schools. One group is on the fast track to college admission, checking all the boxes to get that application glistening before Junior is old enough to drive. The other group is woefully behind in English standards that federal mandates use to hold schools accountable via funding.
The result? At the junior highs, the best students haven’t room for visual and performing arts (VAPA) electives because they bought into the false assumption that two years of foreign language will get them to college faster, and those who are still struggling with English are put in support classes that replace their elective choice.
On May 24, when the district responded to public outcry, claiming, “In junior high school and high school, students choose their own electives,” they were half-correct. Yes, the kids who actually sign up for music — or any electives — usually have passion that overrides peer pressure for foreign languages, but in actuality the flourishing elements of each school’s VAPA program meets outside of the six-period day:
• Santa Barbara Junior High’s award-winning jazz band? Zero period (before school starts).
• My own 7th period (after-school class) regularly has a higher enrollment than my film and theater classes during the day combined.
• And so on across the district.
It is not a matter of lack of desire — “If more kids signed up, we would offer more music classes” — it’s a lack of access.
The district is currently designing its Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) fund (give or take $10 million). Even with the salary increases that have come in the ensuing decade, I imagine there would still be money left to be directed to other goals after returning 7th period to our students.
The goal of the plan are stated as follows:
(1) Through organizational transformation, develop a culturally proficient district to ensure success for all students
(2) Engage students, families, and the community in effective educational partnerships
(3) Prepare students for life, learning, and work in the 21st century
(4) Create and maintain 21st-century learning environments
(5) Enhance early childhood education opportunities
As I’m sure you can see, returning the 7th period to the junior high schools hits nearly all of these goals:
(1) What, if not the arts, provides cultural education and relevance for students? Whether we are talking about arts, woodshop, music, or theater, this certainly applies.
(2) Is it any wonder that student engagement drops when we force kids to give up their one chosen class to do more of the one they likely already hate the most? Accordingly, schools with robust arts programs see drops in suspension and expulsion rates, if nothing else because the kids who need the most structure are now in school for one precious hour with caring adult supervision. But my colleagues and I can readily tell you we’ve seen kids “on the edge” who poured themselves into an instrument, a part in the musical, etc., and it made all the difference in getting them to show up and stay engaged in all of their classes. Just as minimum GPAs are strong motivators to keep some athletes in school, they can be a powerful draw for some of our artists, as well.
(3) The arts are a valid career. Santa Barbara offers fine examples in the professions of music, dance, and theater, to say nothing of the film community that calls our town home. Additionally, it’s an open secret that students with training in the arts tend to improve in all of their subjects, regardless of their adult careers. The teamwork, confidence, responsibility, and out-of-the-box thinking that come with the arts are touted as skills lacking in the modern workplace.
(4) Closely following #3, the creative, collaborative, project-based mentality of the 21st century is most directly taught in the arts.
(5) Well, 4 out of 5 ain’t bad.
This problem can be solved. A decade ago, we admitted that it must be solved when we labeled those cuts as “temporary.” An entire generation of students has gone through our system without the quality of an education that most of us adults, particularly the ones who grew up here, enjoyed.
Now is the time. If you want to restore our visual and performing arts programs to their former standing, please come to the next school board meeting on Tuesday, June 12, and let your voice be heard.