Every day I live and breathe the arts.
From the moment I step onto the Orange County School of the Arts campus, I begin to soak in the “art school” scene before me: a mass of bizarrely dressed high schoolers absentmindedly incorporating their artistic talents with their academic workload.
Perhaps this means composing a tune to remember a math formula or sketching out an intricate biology diagram. This is the result of an interdisciplinary environment and the idea that art is inherent to our identity. Everywhere I turn, I am reminded of the passion radiating from these inspiring, multi-talented students.
I cannot imagine what it must be like on a campus devoid of the arts. Yet many schools are failing their students in the arts.
Many people are unaware of the fact that the arts are mandated by California state law. California Education Code Sections 51210-51212 and 51220-51229 state that grades 1 through 12 should offer courses in the visual and performing arts, including dance, music, theater, and visual arts.
There has been a call for stricter enforcement of these laws especially in the city renowned for being the epicenter of the arts. Recently, the Los Angeles Times assigned letter grades to LAUSD schools. The grades were based on how many of the seven standard district-tracked art classes the school offers, availability of extra programs, number of art teachers and quality of equipment. The data is provided from school administrators.
Out of 249 secondary schools, only seven received an A. The majority of schools fall into the C category, offering only two to three of the standard art classes and averaging less than seven art teachers. The survey shows a response bias in how some administrators may have downplayed their art programs in fear that funding might be cut and distributed to other schools. However, most schools are still sorely lacking in the arts. In 2012, according to LAUSD, the average student only spent 2% of his or her learning time receiving an arts education.
This year, funding has increased from $18.5 million to $26.5 million, still short of the $78 million allocated before the budget cuts. Additional problems lie in how schools implement their own budgets. LAUSD is so preoccupied with “formal” education—literacy and STEM—that there is little to no funding leftover for the arts.
The LA Times’ interactive database shows that schools in more affluent neighborhoods tended to have higher grades. This is because schools that receive donations are able to offer extra programs, placing schools in poorer neighborhoods at a disadvantage. While there are charter and magnet schools in the LAUSD similar to donation-dependent OCSA, art should not be an alien subject simply because schools have fewer resources.
Encouraging students to think outside the box is crucial to a child’s development and enhancement of academic performance. OCSA’s teachers recognize our minds are trained in nontraditional ways, so they often present normally dull assignments with an artistic twist. Instead of another essay on The Yellow Wallpaper, we were allowed to express our thoughts in whatever art form we wanted and write a paragraph explaining the relevance. The day of the “gallery,” people brought in 3-D structures, paintings, poems, music, interpretive dances, and yes, essays. It was a memorable day that not only increased our appreciation for each other’s talents but also cemented our comprehension of the short story firmly in our minds.
I’ve seen comics projects taken to a whole new level. Class readings of Romeo and Juliet parallel performances in the Globe Theater. History debates are exceedingly well written and animated—picture future lawyers up on their feet, pacing the room. Students have a deeper understanding of foreign cultures as the class explores different cuisines, dances, grammar intricacies, and lifestyles.
Art allows people to take inventory of the world in a way that is vulnerable and true to the artist. And when that work is shared, it no longer belongs solely to the artist—it becomes a universal, unifying experience for both the creators and the audience. I found a deeper understanding of the world through creative writing—scribbling flash inspirations for poetry whenever the Muses ascended from Olympus, which meant either in the shower or on the two-hour bus ride home from school. Words became a camera, a vessel of visceral feelings. It was finding skeleton structures in cul-de-sac sidewalks, faces on car headlights, stretch marks in canyon carvings. It was discovering something I never knew I lost, and it is this artistic process that brings the community together in a spirit of creation and collaboration.
One of the most valuable things about OCSA is the mentality that everyone is gifted. A skill in the arts is considered with equal weight as a knack for math. This culture fosters an accepting environment. OCSA is not just a school—it’s my second home. My fellow artists—singers, writers, actors, dancers, chefs—infect me with enthusiasm. My fellow academics—mathematicians, biologists, chemists, historians, essayists—encourage me to look at the world differently. These students are one and the same—their creativity infuses their scholarly work the same way knowledge informs their imagination.
It was at OCSA that I found my calling to be a storyteller and inhaled sturm und drang. I’ve formed deep everlasting connections with both academic and conservatory teachers. I’ve learned intellectual humility surrounded by a diverse, talented group of people who all consider themselves artists and scholars.
C.S. Lewis once said that art among other things such as friendship and philosophy “has no survival value, rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” Every student deserves to live through the arts—it’s as simple as that.
This story is among the winners of the High School Insider Speak Out Challenge. We asked students to share what they thought the new Los Angeles Unified Superintendent, Michelle King, should know about their schools. From dozens of submissions we selected 10 entries. Read the whole collection at Dear LAUSD, and stay tuned for an event later this spring.