Above, Arts Education Executive Director Rory Pullens reads Dr. Seuss to students at Rio Vista Elementary School.

Students from Jordan High School join Arts Education chief Rory Pullens on the red carpet at the NAACP Creative Arts Festival.

By Rory Pullens
Executive Director of Arts Education

With the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act in December, school districts around the country are shifting their focus from teaching only core academic subjects to providing all students with a well-rounded education that includes instruction in arts and music.

That philosophy is not new for L.A. Unified, and its renowned Arts Education Branch.

In the nation’s second-largest district, all students are exposed to the arts, and we have been working hard over the last three years to increase that access. No longer is funding for instruction in drawing, painting, singing, band, acting and other creative media the first to be put on the chopping block during budget cuts. In fact, resources are now supplemented by partnerships, fund-raising activities and local artists, including alumni, who are willing to volunteer their expertise.

An Arts Equity Index has been created to ensure that traditionally under-served students and schools receive an increased level of arts support and services.

More than 50 additional arts teachers have been hired to ensure that every school provides arts instruction, including the 25 middle schools that were previously devoid of these lessons.

Nearly 2,000 teachers are learning how to integrate the arts into academic subjects thanks to the District’s robust partnership with arts and cultural institutions: the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Skirball Cultural Center, Armory Center for the Arts, The Music Center, CalArts, and the Urban Arts Partnership.

Stagg Street Elementary School teaches dance, music, theater and visual arts, thanks to the District’s Creative Network initiative.

At schools in high-needs parts of the District, 75,000 additional students are benefiting from partnerships with 42 community arts organizations. L.A. Unified has earmarked $5 million for this five-year effort, the largest investment of its kind since the economic downturn of 2008.

Additional partnerships have provided $1 million worth of art resources and career pathway workshops to students and schools, thanks to the Creative Industry Coalition that includes Nickelodeon, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Capitol Records, Paramount Studios, Telemundo and Warner Bros.

It’s making a difference.

See for yourself at the six Local District Arts Festivals, scheduled for March and April, which will serve every community within the 710-square-mile District. The first Arts Festival showcased the talents of over 2,500 student performers, filmmakers, and visual artist, in Grand Park in downtown LA in front of 10,000 community supporters.

Expanding arts instruction is a priority for L.A. Unified – not because of the new federal directive, but because it matters.

Among the many benefits, children learn to think creatively, work collaboratively, and develop self-discipline and persevere. Attendance increases for the student who breathes band and now loves to come to school. The youngster who discovers a gift for making costumes for the school play begins to consider a career in fashion design. When singers, dancers, and actors experience success on the school stage, they gain confidence and learn to build on that success in other areas.

Creativity encourages critical thinking and communication. In fact, creativity is really embedded in every aspect of instruction. It is the creative element of any discipline that really attracts students to expand their interests in a subject matter, such as adding an artistic element to a science fair project.

Crenshaw High teacher Iris Stevenson rehearses with the school choir.

Creativity, within the context of an art class, always has broader implications.

When we talk about the principles of design, we are talking about perspective. And our perspective influences how we look at life. When we talk about nuances in painting, for instance, we connect that to the nuances in life – the shading, the shadows, the grays because everything is not black or white. In addition to improving eye-to-hand coordination, painting is a form of communicating a message, a thought. How a student interprets a picture he is about to draw and paint develops critical thinking.

A dance performance is much more than a group of students just moving around. Choreography tells a story, about how someone interprets a particular issue in society. Dance allows students to tell a story about who they are, and it is a means by which they can express themselves.

Listen to young children sing. Look at their joy, for those who sound angelic and for those who can barely carry a tune. Listen to the students who come to school only speaking another language as they sing in English, another way to develop their proficiency.

There are many, many examples of how this exposure benefits students because arts education can transform lives and futures.

Rory Pullens, Executive Director of Arts Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District, headed the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. after spending more than a decade as an arts educator in the Denver Public Schools. He also worked as a writer, director and producer in the entertainment industry in Southern California. He plays the piano and is an aficionado of all forms of the arts.