Los Angeles school district turns to Hollywood for help in fixing arts inequities

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LOS ANGELES — Miles from the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the red carpet, Steve Shin belts out tunes on a piano scarred with nicks and love notes written in scratches, teaching children how to sing.

In scores of other middle schools, his students might have already learned how to read the notes on a scale. But years of cuts have stripped arts classes from much of the Los Angeles district, leaving many children in the world's entertainment capital with no instruction in music, visual arts, dance or theater.

When Shin arrived for the first day of class, he quickly realized many of his students were starting from zero. "A lot of them didn't even know they were going to be in a music class," he said.

Now the nation's second-largest school district is trying to enlist Hollywood studios to "adopt" schools and provide students with equipment, mentorships and training as a way to reverse the layoffs that have decimated the curriculum.

The financial picture is slowly changing. The arts budget has grown to $26.5 million, about 40 percent higher than five years ago, but still a fraction of the $76.8 million sum that was once available for the arts. For the next school year, it will increase to $32.3 million.

In 2014, the district hired former TV writer and producer Rory Pullens as its executive director for arts education. He has since hired an arts teacher at every school.

Pullens is convinced his work in a district that has 90 percent minority students will one day help diversify Hollywood — a widely discussed goal after the criticism of this year's all-white list of Academy Award acting nominees. He has already met with Paramount, Universal and dozens of other industry leaders to solicit help.

"It is well within all of our powers, if we work together, to remedy that by really addressing the deep-rooted symptoms and not just trying to put in a couple remedies on the surface," Pullens said.

The renewed push for arts education in LA comes as new federal education policies stir hope that schools will begin shifting more time and money toward classes such as dance and drama. In recent years, districts have focused on areas emphasized by the No Child Left Behind law, the 2001 law that required schools to meet annual targets for math and reading proficiency or face intervention.

"We do see the pendulum swinging away from the stark focus on discipline and standardized testing toward a more well-rounded definition of what education should be," said Scott Jones, senior associate for research and policy at the Arts Education Partnership.

Forty-four states require high schools to offer arts classes. Forty-five states make the same requirement for elementary and middle schools. But at many schools, policy doesn't necessarily match up with course offerings.

The new federal law instructs schools to offer a balanced education that includes music and other arts. In Los Angeles, school leaders are hoping a revised funding formula and industry engagement will rectify longstanding inequities in arts education.

When Pullens arrived, one of his first initiatives was to survey every school to find out what arts programs they had.

In a presentation last spring at a Hollywood middle school with an aging auditorium, Pullens outlined the bleak findings: About 45 schools had no arts teachers and most had no alignment between elementary, middle and high school course offerings. He called on Hollywood executives to pitch in and hired Alyson Reed, a dancer and actress whose credits include playing Ms. Darbus in "High School Musical," to begin reaching out to industry contacts and coordinating donations.

Film and music studios have chipped in to help Los Angeles schools before, but their contributions tended to focus on the schools directly in their backyard: Warner Bros. has provided funding to improve auditoriums at Burbank schools. Sony Entertainment Pictures has run career workshops at Culver City schools.

But the schools with the biggest needs are in less affluent neighborhoods.

Some studio leaders said getting involved with Los Angeles schools was difficult and bureaucratic. Others were simply unaware of the depth of the district's problems, Reed said.

Kelly Koskella, president of Hollywood Rentals, which will be donating studio equipment ranging from lights to fog machines, said he was stunned to learn many Los Angeles Unified schools lack even the kind of gear used in public schools in the mid-1970s.

"It seemed very strange hearing that our schools here didn't have the type of equipment that we were using 20 and 30 years ago," Koskella said.

To date, the Los Angeles district has confirmed partnerships with Nickelodeon, Sunset Bronson Studios and Sunset Gower Studios. Reed said she and Pullens have also had encouraging meetings with many others, including Disney, Sony and CBS and hopes more will be announced soon.

Most of the donations have not reached students yet. Reed said the district is still assessing how the equipment will be dispersed.

In Shin's class, students get by with the bare minimum: an overhead projector displaying lyrics across the screen, two microphones and two standing lights placed in front of the class to make a stage-like performance space.

In a deep voice, Shin calls on students as if they're performing in a real concert in front of their peers. On a recent afternoon, they sang everything from Mexican ballads known as corridos to angst-ridden songs by Adele.

Terry Quintero, 12, had never been in a music class before and now dreams of becoming a professional singer like one of her idols, Adele. When she's singing, Terry said, she leaves everything that's troubling her behind.

"What matters right now," she said, "is this class."


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