Not only is it the largest program of its kind in the state, it is also thriving — despite across-the-board budget cuts that continue to wobble the school district.
“The more decision-makers cut, the more we don’t have money, but our programs are growing, our teachers are more educated and our curriculum and assessments are more standardized,” said VAPA director Karen Childress-Evans. “Nobody understands what we do here because it’s not done in any other district.”
In an auditorium-turned-office space is where the crux of VAPA’s decision-making takes place. The largely condemned 1950s site at 825 Santa Barbara Place in Mission Beach, which just recently skirted an outright property sale by the SDUSD, houses the program’s headquarters and serves as the think tank behind the thriving operation.
The building itself might be falling apart, but the ideas and programs developed from within its crumbling walls are strengthening the arts program’s foundation with every surefire step taken by its administrators, which includes a director, a music director and four resource teachers for each of the arts disciplines.
Through adherence to a strategic multi-year plan, comprehensive analyses into arts-integrated education and the groundbreaking discovery that the arts serves as a foundation for multi-curricular learning, the VAPA program advances students’ critical thinking, improves their vocabulary and cultural literacy and generates results in measurable outcomes like higher test scores.
“What we want are arts embedded intelligently,” said Childress-Evans. “When we get arts block-grant money, my focus is that it has to leave a footprint.”
Through a $1 million Department of Education D&D (Development and Dissemination) grant and a partnership with U.C. Irvine, Childress-Evans and her hard-working team have discovered through research that the arts — dance, theater, visual art and music — can serve as key tools for the development of a child’s dynamic critical-thinking skills.
“We designed lessons K-2 in dance and theater to meet the needs of kids that are mostly English-language learners in accessing literacy at a young age,” she said. “There’s a lot of smart kids out there, but they don’t understand the words, so the doors close to them. What we’re trying to do is challenge the rigor and also improve their vocabulary.”
VAPA’s research has resulted in quantifiable success in SDUSD’s students.
“We have found with the Model D&D grant that English-language learners’ CELDT (California English Language Development Test) scores have gone up significantly because of the program, so we’re doing something right,” she said.
Another grant — the California Post-Secondary Education Commission’s “Improving Teacher Quality” grant — also showed that test scores in science improved when visual art, dance and theater were incorporated as a base to supplement the science curriculum.
VAPA administrators’ next focus is to work on supporting the Common Core Standards — educational state standards that describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject within each grade level.
“We look at the district benchmarks and say, ‘How are kids doing in grade-3 science? Where are they missing the concept? What’s tough for them?’ and we took that and wrote lessons for it,” Childress-Evans said. “We’re pretty much hand to mouth here.”
Despite difficult obstacles — and potentially more challenges to face ahead — VAPA is able to succeed thanks to the efforts of its dedicated team, the benefits of public-private partnerships and proven success of arts integration in the classroom.
“It is so important across the board that students have critical thinking and think creatively, innovatively and collaborate and communicate. That’s at the center of what we do here in the arts,” she said. “We’re preparing kids for careers that don’t even exist right now, so the arts are so critical to that.”
VAPA’s active partnerships — more than 60 and counting — include everything from museum and theater visits to free musical or choral coaching to the donation of physical supplies or complimentary services by myriad businesses and organizations.
“It ranges from the mundane to the pretty exotic,” said Childress-Evans. “I do it all with people and relations. I’m not a fundraiser. I’m just not good at it. That said, we bring in millions of dollars every year in goods and services through people. As long as the district will give me people that are quality — people I can use — I can make it work.”
Childress-Evans said the strength of VAPA’s programs is directly relational to the quality of teachers in her classrooms.
“If the program dies, it’s not because of the kids,” she said. “There is a certain amount of compassion and dedication one needs to build a program. Wherever our strong programs are, that’s where our best teachers are.”
VAPA’s instrumental music specialist, Mark Nicholson — who acts as a principal of sorts for all 26 elementary music teachers in the district — has helped grow the music program so all 130 elementary schools have music offerings in the form of band, orchestra, choir or VAPA’s “exploratory program,” where students can try their hand at a range of instruments from different families.
Again, the programs’ success is attributed to the leadership of the teacher at its helm, he said.
“No. 1 is the teacher. That’s what makes or breaks it in the classroom,” he said. “There’s case after case where we can show you these beautiful programs that are because of these phenomenal teachers.”
Although Nicholson said it has been a tough road over the last decade to build programs and achieve music education in all schools, music continues to be alive and well in San Diego Unified.
“The last couple of years have been really challenging as we lost some teachers through layoffs, but we came back. We’re still afloat,” he said.
The palpable success of the VAPA programs and the battle to provide all students in the district with access to quality arts must wage on, despite the always-impending budgetary challenges ahead, he said.
“We’ve come a long way. We’ve worked hard. The community has really rallied with us to make this happen and to educate the board and the decision-makers on how important arts and music are in the lives of these children,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work, and we just have to hold on at this point and not let that go.”
For more information about the Visual and Performing Arts program, visit www.sandi.net/page/2200.