By Jessica Mele, Executive Director

In last Wednesday’s Americans for the Arts webinar, Arts Education: A Shared Responsibility, Mary Ruth McGinn noted that districts and schools must ultimately accept some responsibility for a shared delivery model. In the meantime, it’s up to us to “join the revolution.” So what can we, as community arts education organizations, do to support that revolution? How can we change our conversations, systems and programs to support a shared delivery model?

At Performing Arts Workshop, we’ve been looking at how we support a shift to a shared delivery model in two ways: our programming and our planning with partner schools. We’re hoping to change the conversation on our end to avoid many of the assumptions and excuses that usually surface when educators look at their lean budgets and consider how to “fit” the arts into an already crowded curricular day.

Our Programming:

Since 2011, we have been shifting our program to an “immersive partnership” model. That is, a partnership where an artist is truly in residence at a school – teaching all or most students at a school, all year long and multiple years in a row. It’s a partnership wherein there is clear communication, shared resources (money, space, planning time), and a common vision among leadership for the school’s arts education plan. Immersive partnerships mean that artists are more than just weekly visitors at a school; rather, they are integral staff who complement the work done by generalist teachers, arts specialists, and other service providers.

We have a few partnerships where we’re approaching this model. At Paul Revere K-8 School in San Francisco, our Program & Artistic Manager works with school leadership and other community partners to understand how each piece functions to meet overarching literacy goals through intensive and varied arts experiences. Because of these goals, we partner to conduct a rigorous hip hop/rap residency in which our artist partners closely with a 7th grade classroom teacher and a digital music provider from another arts organization. Costs are shared between us and the school, and we are invited to participate in parent/community events and regular collaborative meetings.

For other partners, change will not happen overnight. Regardless of how immersive a partner is, it is our job now to help them bridge connections between their arts program and their student goals.

Our Planning:

Some principals are there. They “get” the vision behind an “immersive” partnership. Some need coaching to understand the idea. And all principals could use support in envisioning a more meaningful arts education program for their school.

For the last few decades, as arts programs have retrenched, the focus has been on access to arts education. As long as every student gets a little of everything, that’s enough, right? Wrong. Would we be satisfied with six hours of math instruction a year? How deep can you get in 6 hours of learning?

So, we tried to change the conversation to go beyond access and towards depth and intentional alignment. In order to do this, we developed our arts education planning tool.

The tool is designed for each principal to see their arts education program on one page – including arts specialists, arts organizations, arts institutions (symphony, opera, ballet), field trips, visiting artists, etc; in school/out of school; summer and school year. In states like California, where arts programs have been decimated by 30 years of shrinking public dollars, this is particularly important, because arts education programming at each school is different and pieced together from various sources.

The arts education planning tool is designed to spark a conversation – about access, depth, and resources. The ultimate goal is for principals to draw connections between their arts education programming and their overall goals for student learning; and then to revise their programming to better meet those goals.

For example, if a school goal is increasing third grade literacy levels, and the arts education programming for third grade is an eight-week storytelling workshop, then perhaps the principal would consider deepening that program from eight weeks to something more lengthy. From there, it is our responsibility to engage in ongoing reflection about how to modify and deepen our piece of a school’s arts program.

As an outside arts organization, we have both advantages and disadvantages. In many cases, the conversation is had before we walk into the principal’s office: “My teachers want dance this year.” Teachers and principals who are unfamiliar with the arts and overburdened with a need to fill the school day with test prep often approach the arts as enrichment – something that should be fun, and varied.

The “revolution” begins with changing the conversation and making the case that the arts are just as essential to learning as any other subject; and that seeing all pieces of a shared delivery model – depth and breadth – leads to a more fertile learning environment for all youth.

Our Immersive Partnership model won’t revolutionize arts education overnight. But it does bring us one step closer to true and meaningful change.  And BTW can we get a better word for shared delivery? Something that represents the kind of dynamic, integrated and dream-big learning we envision?