The Dynamics Behind Arts Programming in San Francisco Public Schools

Bessie Carmichael Elementary Rehearsal

It’s an early fall evening at the American Conservatory Theater (“A.C.T.”)’s jazzy new performance space in the Tenderloin, and 22 Bessie Carmichael Elementary School students are singing on the theater’s main stage.

The kids’ first piece, created by their musical theater teacher Peter Sroka, is a ditty welcoming audience members to the new theater; the other two are about the Philippines. Sroka has worked with these kids once per week for about a month to get them to where they are this evening. The performance tonight is an opening act for “Monstress,” a two-act A.C.T. play adapted from a book of stories about the history of the Filipino immigrant community in California. Carey Perloff, A.C.T.’s artistic director, put it on as part of the theater’s “San Francisco Stories” initiative, and as a tribute to the neighborhood — the Tenderloin has housed a large population of Filipinos for decades.

Bessie Carmichael is a Tenderloin school where more than 85 percent of the students are categorized by the school district as “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Yet, the kids have a high-quality music teacher and the opportunity to perform at a top theater venue. That is due to San Franciscans’ belief in the power and importance of the arts.

San Francisco is often known as the epicenter for innovations in science and technology. Less known is the city’s commitment to the arts — even if that commitment comes with caveats.

The local community’s beliefs about the importance of the arts in eduction, and the district’s organizing philosophy, are enshrined in SFUSD’s Arts Education Master Plan.

In laying out its approach, the plan cites several studies that highlight the positive impacts of the arts on education. One study funded by the Arts Education Partnership, for example, found that students having a hard time at school improved their social skills when they studied drama.

Another study documented what we might all intuitively assume — that students who actively engage in drawing, music, and other art forms to learn a subject actually find those subjects more interesting, and stay more focused. Teaching through “arts integration,” or the practice of having students engage in projects that use various forms of art to communicate the ideas and knowledge that they are learning, is also one of the district’s stated goals.

Arts Funding — Everyone’s Equal, But Some Schools Are More Equal Than Others

To make their vision a reality, San Franciscans have dedicated funding to arts education in the district, and have also sought to protect the city’s kids from the vagaries of state funding and fluctuating economic cycles. Voters in 2004 approved the earmarking of specific streams of the city’s revenues for arts education in public schools, and renewed that commitment last year. The funding is part of San Francisco’s larger educational finance package called the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF), which in addition to the arts, earmarks a portion of the city’s yearly budget towards the funding of sports programs and school libraries.

However, the earmark doesn’t mean that the arts curriculum and budget is exactly the same at every district school. The reasons boil down to parent expectations and finances, local school logistics, and principals’ priorities.

While the district may provide a school some funding toward a specific discipline that its parent community wants, that funding may only pay for a few weeks of classes, or a half-time teacher depending on the socioeconomic circumstances of the local community (schools with more kids on free or reduced lunches receive more resources). The rest is up to the parent fundraising community, and the principal’s budgeting skills.

Changes in the past few years to the arts curriculum at Lawton Alternative School, a K-8 school in the Sunset with mostly working class parents, illustrate just how the district, parents, and school administrators cobble together resources.

The school dramatically ramped up its music and visual arts classes in the past couple of years when Gina L. Ferrante took over as principal 3 years ago. Students learn hip-hop techniques, ballet, and drama. And some of them even take their social studies classes from San Francisco Jazz musicians who come to class to perform. In an interview, Ferrante said that the shift resulted from Lawton parents’ demand for more music instruction in their kids’ heavily academic curriculum, and her own personal belief that arts education is important.

Today, all Lawton fourth graders have an opportunity to learn the flute, clarinet, trumpet, and violin during the academic year.

Prior to Ferrante’s arrival 3 years ago, students were given a demonstration of the instruments, and asked to pick just one to learn (younger students now play the ukulele and drums). Students can take their time, and specialize in one instrument as they grow older.

Ferrante accomplished the parent community’s goal of boosting the kids’ access to music and visual arts teaching by hiring a new music teacher who was willing to put in the extra work to train the students in all the additional instruments. She also earmarked $7,000 in her general school budget to increase the amount of time that both the music and visual arts teachers spend at the school. PEEF money pays for two days of music teacher John Mansfield’s time while Lawton’s school site budget pays him to teach at the school for the remaining three days of the week. For visual arts, PEEF pays for two-and-a-half days for arts teacher Sharon Ernst’s time, and Lawton pays for the other two-and-a-half. Then parents chipped in by raising $10,000 for instructional supplies so that all students can participate, not just ones who can pay for instruments themselves.

Acting, dancing, drawing, and constructing their way to understanding

Nowhere in the city is the practice of arts integration on more vivid display than at the K-8 Creative Arts Charter school, a parent-run school founded in 1994.

Katie Clay, a Creative Arts elementary school teacher and dance instructor, provides a good example of the school’s teaching approach in action. It’s Friday afternoon, and she and about 20 fifth graders are talking about the kinds of activities that prospectors engaged in as they searched for gold. Clay is trying to elicit a list of action verbs from the students, which she then compiles into several columns on the whiteboard. After a while, the list includes verbs like: “vibrating,” “throwing,” “shaking,” “swinging,” and “rippling.”

Clay and the kids aren’t in a typical-looking classroom — they’re in the school’s dance studio. The fifth graders are learning about the Gold Rush with their regular grade teacher, but that exploration isn’t limited to the whiteboard and textbooks. They’re exploring the theme through their arts classes as well. In Clay’s class, they’re engaging with the subject matter by creating dance movements to illustrate what they’re learning. Over a period of several weeks or months, depending on the project, Clay and her students will create full-on modern dance performances based on these methodical, weekly explorations of their academic studies. The dances can revolve around any theme. Second graders, for example, are spending the year with a unit called “From Farm to Face.” Clay will coach her students to create a dance that will explore the roles of the workers engaged in the process of food production. Last year, another grade created a dance that illustrated the human digestive system.

“It starts with a series of essential questions, and those questions are answered by the end of a 6- to 8-week study. And it’s answered through all of these entry points: dance; visual arts; music; field trips; and writing ,” explains Brooke Nagel, a lower school administrator who works on the school’s curriculum.

The school administration has adopted a teaching framework called “Teaching for Understanding,” an approach championed by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Teachers pick a theme, and then work with colleagues in the different arts disciplines to help students explore them. The grade school teachers themselves use the projects to teach math, geography, social studies, and English language arts. If students are assigned to study the question of what makes up a community, for example, the concept could be broken down into economic, social, and geographical sub-themes. Student activities could include building three-dimensional maps of the Western Addition, writing profiles of members of the community, creating theatrical skits about community workers, and creating dances. The idea is to use the disparate activities to create nimble thinkers who are integrating concepts and using them rather than merely memorizing facts.

“They really do have a solid academic focus, but we also really love the fact that my kids get an hour every week each of visual arts, music, dance, and theater,” said Jennifer Gette (GGMG’s former editor-in-chief, and board vice-chair.) Gette has a second grader and fourth grader at Creative Arts Charter. “They have 4 hours of instruction with arts specialists employed at the school, and on top of that, we have an arts director that coaches the classroom teachers on how to integrate arts into the classroom.”

In addition to the themed projects, students learn the various arts disciplines in and of themselves. The fifth graders in Clay’s class, for example, spent half of their class learning Frevo, a vigorous Brazilian street dance. In their music class, they’re learning Samba-Reggae drumming with Artist-in-Residence, Alfie Macias. And on the day I visited, I observed first graders systematically learn abstract art techniques. School just looked like a lot of fun (and that’s not an accident). The fun is a fundamental aspect of the school’s approach — it received the California Distinguished School Award in 2014 for diminishing the achievement gap between its socioeconomically disadvantaged students and the rest of the student body. The school also received an award from the California Department of Education for running an exemplary arts program, and its school accountability report card shows that its students’ academic performance ranks above the state average.

“If your child comes to Creative Arts, there’s no fear that they’re not going to get the academic component,” says Fernando Aguilar, the school’s principal/director.

Creative Arts Charter’s curriculum is unusual in that it places such a strong emphasis on the arts. But what it has in common with regular district schools is that the arts-heavy curriculum is there because parents got involved in setting the agenda for their kids’ classes, and that is what everyone interviewed for this article said matters.

“When the parents get involved with school leadership, and they say, ‘I want my child to be able to take advantage of the wealth of the arts that are available in San Francisco,’ they have a direct impact on the decisions that school administrators make,” says Susan Stauter, SFUSD’s artistic director. “So the conduit for parents is that school site-based management council/PTA that they sit on, which help make those decisions.”


Originally published in GGMG magazine.