Fresno Unified rolls out new arts education program

The Fresno BeeSeptember 10, 2013 

Fresno Unified, city and county officials sketched out a plan to enhance the district's arts programs Tuesday as part of a nearly year-long planning process and partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Last October, Fresno became the 10th city nationwide chosen to team up with the Washington, D.C.-based Kennedy Center's Any Given Child program to develop a long-range plan for improving arts education.

The plan unveiled Tuesday includes creating a pilot model for expanded arts offerings at seven or more school sites and drafting a policy guaranteeing more equity and access to the arts for all students.

That second piece -- access for all students -- will mark a major shift for the district. A recent survey of teachers and principals, which was conducted by a team of district, city and arts organization officials, found visual and performing arts are noticeably absent from most students' school day.

Less than 10% of preschool through eighth-grade students have some visual or performing arts instruction throughout the school year, the questionnaire shows. On average, less than 3% of elementary students get some visual arts instruction on a regular basis.

An overwhelming 96% of fourth-graders regularly get music instruction -- the year they learn to play a recorder flute -- but that number drops off in the later grades. About 12% of students in first, second and third grades participate in music classes.

That's part of the reason the district and city decided to apply for the Any Given Child program in the first place, said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson.

"We clearly had a long way to go," he said. "We're continuing to make investments large and small all across the spectrum so we can try to knock down those numbers and build in an arts experience."

The blueprint includes three goals: increase professional development training and integrate arts with the new Common Core State Standards, give all students access to the arts, and address a lack of music and performing arts classes, particularly in the district's elementary and middle schools.

Fresno Unified also hopes to establish a visual arts trip for all students in a grade level, possibly third grade, as part of the plan.

A governing board that includes members from the Fresno County Office of Education, local philanthropic and arts organizations, Hanson and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin will meet at least twice each year to gauge the initiative's progress.

There's no specific funding attached to the initiative. But the district has made moves to boost support for the arts.

School board trustees chipped in $1 million this year in Proposition 30 funds to buy more than 1,000 new musical instruments, visual arts supplies and fund art teacher positions. Allan Kristensen, Fresno Unified's visual and performing arts manager, said those dollars helped supplement the district's overall arts budget. Until Prop. 30, that budget -- excluding middle and high school art teacher salaries -- totaled about $3 million.

Those extra dollars come on top of a $4.4 million package to overhaul and expand the district's middle school electives, which includes adding extra art, music, journalism and other classes. The school board is set to discuss another art funding proposal Wednesday, which Hanson said could send about $100,000 to preschool classrooms.

The Kennedy Center program provided no money, but its staff lent their expertise to help the district craft its goals.

"While the report is a validation of what has already been achieved in Fresno ... it (also) supports the future direction for arts education in this community," Darrell Ayers, vice president for education at the Kennedy Center, said in a statement.

McLane High art teacher Marc Patterson said he welcomes the new focus on the arts at the middle school level, an area he says took a hit during the recession.

"(Those programs) have been slowly tapering off until just recently," he said.

Paul Germain, also an art teacher at McLane, said art program budgets and the cost of materials are two topics that are "constantly being talked about." But he said the district and individual teachers seem genuinely interested in supporting the arts.

Sometimes that support comes out of teachers' own pockets to pay for supplies, Patterson and Germain added.

Even so, Germain said, he's concerned about misperceptions of what's taught during art class. He said his 3D art and design class is rigorous -- on par with college prep classes -- which he said gives students more value.

"The reason art has traditionally struggled is because there's too many people who view it as personal enrichment ... but that's not what it's supposed to be," he said. "Art classes can't just do traditional things like drawing and painting and clay crafts, because who does clay for a career? Art needs to prepare them for the actual careers."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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