This is a guest post by Sari Levy who consults with education reform organizations, including Democrats for Education Reform, A+ Denver and the Colorado Legacy Foundation. Follow Sari on Twitter at @saril78.

Last year I wrote a report for the advocacy group, A+ Denver, on “arts education” even though my own experience from kindergarten to senior year had left me rolling my eyes. Mentions of “art education” produced flashbacks of my 5th grade water-color originals that looked like some kind of Rorschach test designed by our schnauzer, Boris. Arts-in-school was a random assortment of classes offered to entertain, distract, and apparently to introduce us to the most beautiful of all instruments: the recorder. In other words, arts education was a bunch of unrelated filler classes.

Leading up to last November’s election that would raise $11 million for the arts, rumor had it that the state of arts education in Denver Public Schools was very mixed, depending on the school. In some places, it was even worse than my pinch-pot filled experience. In some schools, teachers who’d been hired with tax dollars earmarked specifically for “arts” were actually being used to hire PE teachers who had some certificate to teach dance (but weren’t). Or a teacher with a certificate to teach arts education was replacing a history teacher so he or she could be paid from the “arts” pot. In other words, there was a lot of talk that the arts (in at least some schools) were taking a backseat to almost everything else.

By the time A+ Denver published the report, it was evident that some of the rumors above were true, and there were a lot of schools offering fairly low-quality arts programs. The bad news was that overall, low-income kids didn’t have the same opportunities in the arts as middle and upper class kids—which is mostly a function of having less access to private lessons and camps, and lacking consistent access to strong programs in school.

Low-income students in Denver are under-prepared to compete for coveted spots at top arts schools like Denver School of the Arts. For example, in 2011 twenty-six students completed the 6th grade orchestra audition, but just two were from DPS schools and neither was qualified. DSA has not consistently admitted DPS students from a single school west of I-25 for at least three years.

Part of the reason for the inconsistency, and lack of rigor, across school art programs is that the district has typically played a support role instead of a prescriptive one.

The good news is that the “wild west” approach to arts education (as one art teacher put it) had yielded some very unique, innovative, and powerful arts programs in pockets around the city. Some examples include: a mariachi club at Bryant-Webster elementary, theater program at East HS, a new school devoted to the arts in SW Denver, and a visual arts program at Brown. Talented entrepreneurs have begun moving into the space.

My favorite example of innovation in arts education is El Sistema [1]. El Sistema Colorado launched in Jan 2012 at Garden Place Elementary, a school where 98% of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. An orchestra and choir program for 200 students (pre-school through 4th grade), it is free for all students. It is, however, quite rigorous, requiring more than 10 hours each week after school and on Saturdays.

El Sistema is modeled after the famous Venezuelan program now teaching ensemble music to 350,000 of the country’s poorest children, and is making a mark in other countries around the world. It was founded by (TED speaker) Jose Antonio Abreu (see TED talk below).  Less than two years from its inception, El Sistema Colorado will expand to almost 500 students at three Denver Public Schools:  Garden Place Elementary, Swansea Elementary, and Bruce Randolph Middle High School, all in a severely low-income region of Denver where 35,000 children live in poverty, or are at-risk.

I had an opportunity to hear (another TED speaker) Sal Khan talk about Khan Academy during trip to Palo Alto this winter. He said something that made me a bit teary (and hopeful), which I think is relevant to this blog.  Bill Gates said that Gates’ kids had used many Khan Academy videos to learn math concepts. “We know we’ve accomplished something remarkable when the poorest kids in the world aren’t getting a watered down version of the education Bill Gates’ kids are getting,” he said. “They are getting the same education.

El Sistema is one example of a handful of exceptional programs around the country where kids aren’t just getting a watered down version of an arts education—they are getting the same one.

DPS just raised $11 million from taxpayers to invest in its arts (and PE) programs. We have an opportunity to reimagine the way schools teach the arts — or the opportunities we create after school. But DPS will need more entrepreneurs willing to reimagine what we mean by arts education, so that students graduate from high school having been through a spectrum of what’s available, and possible.

The theme song for this blog was composed and performed by my 5th grade cousin Ruben, who reminds me that kids can do remarkable things—if we can provide them a way to do it.


Featured image ©Piton Foundation/Brigid McAuliffe

[1]  Since this film was made, March of 2012, Sistema Colorado at Garden Place has grown to include 32 four year olds during school and 70 first, third and fourth graders after school. Fall of 2013, Sistema Colorado’s program at Garden Place will be at capacity, adding close to 50 students, serving all grade levels, pre-school through 5th grade. A total of 220 students.