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Stars Come Out to Urge Arts in Schools

Education: At a special committee hearing in Burbank, actors and lawmakers discuss ways to foster cultural instruction for children.

September 20, 2002|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood stars and Sacramento politicians Thursday urged schools in California to pay the kind of attention to the arts that is given to mathematics and reading.

At a special meeting of a state legislative committee in Burbank, arts education advocates insisted that youngsters' overall academic achievements improve when they are involved in subjects such as drama and music.

Speakers such as actresses Helen Hunt and Debbie Allen lamented that budget restraints have reduced fine arts classes at many California schools.

Hunt, who won the Academy Award for best actress in 1997, spent the summer mentoring young drama students, she told the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Arts. She said many others in the film industry are willing to participate in arts education programs but need to be approached by school officials.

Hunt said the drama classes she took at Providence High School in Burbank were critical to her at the time and later in her career.

"Being able to express myself saved me," she said. "Think how important [the arts are] now. We're asking our kids to grow up in overwhelming times."

Other witnesses at the hearing held at Burbank City Hall said research shows the arts help students succeed in their core academic subjects. For example, drama encourages students to understand story lines and words before acting them out. Music incorporates math skills through spatial reasoning.

"The notion that arts are frivolous add-ons to the curriculum can't be farther from the truth," said James Catterall, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education who has studied the effects of art on children.

The legislative committee's chairman, Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), said the hearing was intended to gather information for possible legislation next year to boost arts in the schools.

Allen, who runs a dance center in Culver City and starred in the hit TV show "Fame," described most arts programs in schools as "abysmal."

"There is a great void," she said.

Allen said educators should take advantage of young people's taste for hip-hop culture to spark their creativity at school. She said it could inspire dance and songwriting.

California has one art teacher for every 737 students, according to the state Department of Education. In Los Angeles County, one art teacher is available for every 1,200 students. Many school districts are weathering severe budget deficits, and few people expect arts programs to expand.

The county Office of Education, acknowledging its deficiencies in the arts, next week is scheduled to release a blueprint to improve such instruction. The plan, in conjunction with the county Arts Commission and Board of Supervisors, will call for more required courses, better training for teachers, more links to nonprofit and professional arts groups, and more funding by local districts. Details of the plan will be released on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, however, is considered a happy exception. It is in the middle of a 10-year plan that began in 1999 to include art instruction on its campuses. So far, $25 million has been spent on the plan despite cutbacks in other areas. Today, every L.A. Unified elementary school has a music teacher, and nearly a third have dance, theater and visual arts programs as well, district officials said.

"We're in a period of great need," said L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer, a jazz and opera fan. "But we have kept our faith in this commitment."

Ken Robinson of the J. Paul Getty Trust and an advisor to President Bush on education, said the arts have been marginalized in education systems the world over. He said an international culture has emerged in which people think arts education will not lead children to employment.

"Intelligence is diverse," he said. "Mathematicians think visually. Dancers think mathematically."

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