Cleo Fresco, 8, and dozens of her Oak Grove Elementary School classmates achieved their own version of musical bliss, many smiling from ear to ear amid the organized chaos of more than 40 third-graders participating in weekly music class.
They clanked wooden claves and shook egg-shaped shakers as they sang along on a recent morning with music teacher Andrew Deveny, who has taught at numerous Sonoma County schools for 15 years.
This music lesson introduced a composition known as a “round,” when at least three voices sing the same melody but start at different times. The goal is for the voices to blend harmoniously.
Each of the Sebastopol public charter school's 450 students receives a comprehensive arts education. They're taught classes in visual arts such as pottery and drawing, as well as performance courses including dance, chorus and band.
However, Oak Grove represents an exception in Sonoma County when it comes to arts education. Nearly 4 out of 5 of the county's public schools do not provide the comprehensive arts curriculum required by California law, according to an analysis of state education department data by Big Idea Arts and Education Consulting, a local group that specializes in implementing arts education reforms. The analysis focused on access to arts courses and the socioeconomic factors that contributed to a wide range of enrollment levels among the schools.
Every public school across the state needs to provide courses in dance, music, theater and visual arts. In addition, middle and high schools are supposed to offer applied arts courses such as automotive engineering, industrial arts or general agriculture, for example.
The rules are not enforced, though. According to the state Department of Education, 39% of California students were enrolled in arts classes in the 2017-18 school year. While Sonoma County reported arts enrollment slightly higher at 42%, it trailed neighboring Marin (55%), Napa (53%) and Lake (46%) counties.
A handful of organizations here are trying to reestablish a meaningful arts curriculum at every school in the county.
Creative Sonoma, a division of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, and the Sonoma County Office of Education last month released a five-year plan to increase the access and scope of arts education in public schools, especially at schools with vulnerable students. Called the Sonoma County Arts Education Framework, it was the culmination of years of research and analysis.
“It's a matter of getting around the things we're putting as obstacles in our way to doing that,” said Creative Sonoma director Kristen Madsen. “Whether that is funding choices, facilities, the time of day.”
Furthermore, research shows arts education helps address many of the pressing issues schools already face, Madsen said. Aptitude test scores, student suspension rates and daily attendance all improve when arts classes are taught, she said.
“The kids who need it the most are likely getting it the least, and that's a gut punch,” Madsen said of the inconsistency among the county's 40 school districts on art class offerings.
Little encouragement for arts education
When it comes to the decay of the arts curriculum, education officials said it has been a casualty almost 50 years in the making, despite the value of the arts in students' social and emotional development, especially for disadvantaged or special needs students.
Robin Hampton, a coordinator with the California Alliance for Arts Education advocacy group, said state approval in 1978 of Proposition 13, which restricted increases of property taxes that account for one-third of a public school district's budget, was one of the first pivotal policy changes that caused financial resources to shift away from arts instruction in schools.
“It was a gradual thing where arts (classes) just kind of started disappearing,” said Hampton, who leads Arts Now, one of California Alliance's programs. “I don't think there's a person in the state that said, ‘Let's get rid of arts.' But the focus was test scores, and arts don't get tested.”
The accountability systems put in place forced local school districts to devote most of their daily instructional time on subjects that determined a school's performance ratings, said Karen McGahey, a retired Sonoma County educator and longtime arts advocate who ended her career as the director of leadership development for the county office of education.Improving public school education has been a priority for previous U.S. presidents, who spent billions of dollars on landmark programs like No Child Left Behind under George W. Bush and the Common Core State Standards under Barack Obama.