Highline School District: Ensuring Equitable Access to Arts Learning

Highline School District continues making progress on their thoughtful and systemic work to ensure equitable provision of arts learning to all students. In recognition of the need to attend to arts education, and in response to concerns raised by parents, Highline Superintendent John Welch established a Superintendent’s Council on the Arts in the fall of 2009. Top among the Council’s recommendations was the adoption of a specific arts education policy to ensure equitable access to the arts across the district and across grade levels.

ArtsEd Washington commends Highline’s work and was delighted to be a resource to the Council during their deliberations and research. Now close to a year into their efforts, we asked Alan Spicciati, Highline’s Chief Accountability Officer and Co-Chair of the Superintendent’s Council on the Arts, to share details on the District’s process and how they used the data from the Council’s report and recommendations to address the inequities of arts provision within their district.

Can you provide an overview of equity of provision from the Highline perspective – what data did you review during your planning work?

The first thing we did was to just gather data on our offerings. We found that our music offerings in elementary are in good shape. All of our elementary students received 90 minutes per week of general music, and all elementary schools offered band in 5th and 6th grade. However, course offerings in secondary were not equitable. In general, schools in wealthier communities had more opportunities. Drama is a thriving program at Highline High School, while Mt. Rainier High School has a strong vocal music program. However, schools with the least community resources and lowest academic performance tended to have the leanest arts offerings. The most difficult discovery for us was that one highly diverse and economically challenged middle school only offered band. There was no vocal music, art, drama, or dance classes. We have since taken steps to address that.

Can you comment on how you used your data to highlight and address inequity of arts provision and access in the Highline School District?

One of the things we learned is that our offerings are not always equitably attracting the participation of all ethnic groups. This is challenging, because we want strong offerings in traditional arts disciplines, but content such as instrumental music will not reach all students. We met with Latino parent groups to better understand their desires, and learned that dance and ceramics classes are high on their list of priorities.

Would you highlight some specific things that Highline is doing to ensure, or make progress on, equity of provision of the arts for all students?

In this difficult funding environment, it was clear that our plan for a comprehensive and sequential arts program could not be immediately implemented. We were cutting budgets last spring when the Arts Council report was received by the School Board, and we are cutting approximately $6.7 million again this year. Additionally, some of our schools are facing difficult accountability challenges, which put a premium on literacy and math classes.

That being said, we’ve made three positive steps this year in providing arts programs:

  1. The superintendent immediately instituted a requirement that each middle school offer at least two different art forms. The school mentioned above that previously only offered band, this year offered Art 1, Art 2, and Concert Choir in addition to band.
  2. A cultural arts supervisor was hired for the first time in seven years. This .6 FTE position (60% of full-time) ensures that a qualified person has the time and central office positioning to ensure the development of a quality arts program.
  3. The cultural arts supervisor has reconvened a core group of Arts Council members to recommend an arts policy to the School Board. A draft of the policy was shared with the superintendent and was adopted by the Board in August 2011.

Based on Highline’s findings and experiences, what would you suggest as best practices for other school districts as they seek to address equity of arts provisions in their schools?

Community leadership, district staff, and teachers all working together were key elements to success and one that we got right. In working in an advocacy capacity, we also found the following elements to be instrumental in connecting with and educating decision makers:

  • It takes everybody. Teachers ignite the passion. Parents have the ear of the school board. Principals and district leaders can keep arts on the front burner. Seek a diverse collection of roles in your arts advocacy efforts.
  • Adopt a “big tent” philosophy (no “special interests”). We’re strongest when we speak with one voice. Music advocates should invite drama, dance, and visual art advocates to the table. You’ll build a bigger coalition and the decision makers are less likely to believe you are acting in your own self-interest.
  • Appeal to a variety of learning styles, experiences, and motivations. What persuades you? Your spouse? Your co-workers? Decision makers have the same variety of learning styles and you have to be aware of this. Do your decision makers resonate with an emotional human interest story or cold, hard facts? If you only do one, you’re going to miss some people. Are they motivated to build award winning programs or are they motivated to make sure no child lacks access? Can you tap into their arts experiences, or do you need to help them understand the value of the arts?
  • “In God we Trust…everyone else bring data.” One of the most compelling things we did is graph the enrollment in arts courses by school and by ethnicity. Often, people assume every school has the programs their neighborhood school offers. Demonstrating that where you live determines your opportunities in the arts, and that Latino students had the fewest opportunities, was powerful.
  • Use research…cautiously. Most arts advocates don’t realize how skeptical leaders can be of “research” claims. Every special interest advocate and curriculum salesman has “research” backing their cause. If you overreach, it can backfire. Make sure studies you cite control for demographics, for example.
  • Use laws…cautiously. No Child Left Behind considers the arts to be core curriculum and requires a “Highly Qualified Teacher.” Washington state law requires all students to take arts assessments in elementary, middle, and high school. Make sure decision makers know this, but don’t expect to win on this argument alone. Schools are overwhelmed with unfunded mandates. So share the compliance issues, but communicating your vision is what builds commitment.
  • Meet their needs. Highline is preparing every student for “college, career, and citizenship”. We made sure to address the role of the arts in meeting our vision, as well as advocating art for art’s sake.
  • Conduct outreach. Engage PTAs and community groups. Conduct surveys that get your message out at the same time they collect data. The more people for whom the arts become a “front burner” issue, the better.
  • Get help. Don’t reinvent the wheel; build on the shoulders of others. ArtsEd Washington connected us with research and model board policies. The OSPI arts website has many resources.
  • Seek solutions that build capacity. Arts advocacy isn’t an event; it’s an on-going process. Our first step was an arts leadership position rather than specific program investments to help acquire resources and continue to develop our vision.
  • Use a short-term/long-term approach in times of scarce resources. Some things can happen with minimal resources. Don’t lose momentum because you can’t afford your master plan. And decision makers will want to take action now on something to build credibility, so identify key early wins that make them look good while also helping the arts.
  • Memorialize your progress. The board, superintendent, or other decision maker you influence today will be on to something else tomorrow. Formal decisions, such as adopting a board policy, increase the chances that your success will continue into the future.

Students should not be negatively impacted in their arts learning just because of a zip code, income level, or special need. While many school districts across Washington state are facing tough times amidst statewide budget cuts, Highline is a prime example of a school district that has taken steps to plan and be ready to take positive action in addressing their district’s arts provisions as situations improve. By working together, we can impact change in the way the arts is perceived, funded, and taught in our schools. For arts education information, resources, and assistance, contact ArtsEd Washington today!

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    • Amy Wright

      “Our teachers have taken a leadership role in advancing the integration of arts in our school community. This has had a significant impact on student engagement in their classrooms, in the climate of the school in general, and, in their personal feeling of efficacy as teachers to meet the needs of all students.”

      Amy Wright, Stillwater
      Riverview School District