Gregory Lawrence Jefferson was a fifth-grader at Daniel Webster Elementary in Pasadena when he heard the sound that changed his life. After the Pasadena Symphony played at his school, the kids were invited to try the various instruments. "I was the one who picked up the flute," he says. "It was like a spark."
He talked his parents into buying him one, started band and orchestra classes, and "things just took off from there." Jefferson, now 24 and a renowned classical flutist who has performed worldwide and with singers ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Diana Ross, says he was lucky to get a taste of the arts when he did: Not long afterward, school programs were radically cut back.
The arts have long struggled to hold their place in schools. But now, after years of being battered by funding crunches and a back-to-basics movement, they are beginning to return to classrooms alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.
While some are ready to declare a renaissance in arts education, others are more cautious. They see frustratingly uneven progress. But clearly change is taking place.
* The State Board of Education in January adopted standards that for the first time spell out what students need to know to develop and demonstrate literacy in dance, music, theater and the visual arts, just as in languages, math, science, history and social science. Though short of a mandate, it is a step toward integrating the arts into the public schools' core curriculum.
* Admissions requirements at the state's public universities are being amended to require more arts instruction in high school.
* In February, the state PTA launched "SMARTS: Bring Back the Arts," an awareness and advocacy campaign targeted at legislators, school boards, media and parents with a goal of seeing that every public school student gets quality arts education from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Last October the 1.8 million-member organization adopted arts education as its top priority.
* Statewide, 211 school districts have received a total of $6 million in California Department of Education grants, seed money to help them start implementing effective arts programs.
* A 10-year Arts Education Plan adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1999 recognizes the "powerful role" of the arts in education and has as a primary goal that every graduating senior will be proficient in one art form and have an overview of arts throughout history.
* Last week, the L.A. school board gave final approval to an $18.6-million budget for arts education, up $5 million from last year. "We fought for it," school board president Caprice Young said. "It was controversial because the superintendent did not initially include the arts money in his budget. We amended it back in."
Despite signs of a revival, there are significant issues confronting the integration of the arts into curriculum. Some educators worry that the growing focus on learning that can be measured solely by standardized tests presents a threat to subjects in which assessment is more subjective. And, pressed to meet testing goals, schools may well continue to give short shrift to the arts in favor of subjects that produce hard numbers. Other issues range from a shortage of qualified teachers to ongoing financial pressures on schools.
"It's going to be a long haul before we have universal acceptance, but I think we're on the road to arts education for every child," said Don Doyle, arts consultant at the state Department of Education. "We have moved from the doldrums of the '80s and early '90s and now are pressing forward to making arts education an equal partner in the curriculum."
Current developments are in stark contrast to the dark days for the arts in schools, a decline that began after passage in 1978 of Proposition 13, the property tax freeze. The freeze sapped funding to schools and, in the scramble for dollars, the arts were seen as frills. Schools cut programs, sold band instruments and gave pink slips to art and music teachers.
For many schools, arts education turned into a 20-year hit-or-miss proposition, a legacy not easily reversed. But arts organizations, parents groups and educators who have been fighting to bring back the arts feel they have won a crucial victory: a change in attitude about the importance of the arts in their own right and about their ability to foster creativity and shape learning in more subtle ways.
As school board president Young puts it: "If you have a kid who's stood up in front of a crowd and sung, or painted a picture and shared it with classmates, that's a kid who's a courageous learner, someone who's not afraid to dive in, ask probing questions and express opinions."