I am a proactive parent who has been committed to arts education for over two decades. And,I marvel at how our school district, the fifth largest in the nation, has been able to keep the arts alive for our students despite an economic recession and many other pressures.
The million-dollar question is: How did we manage to save the majority of our arts programs in such an adverse climate?
The Clark County School District (CCSD) encompasses all of southern Nevada inclusive of Las Vegas and its suburbs. The state of Nevada has undergone budget crises and severe budget cuts in education since 2006. Our funding comes from state allocated funds mandated by a legislature that meets once every two years. I have been active during three legislative sessions where direct threats to high-risk programs such as the arts and athletics have been in play, and believe that there are several components that are key to successful advocacy efforts.
The Components to Success: A Belief in One Common Cause
It is a scientifically proven and socially accepted fact that the arts are essential elements of balance for cognitive and social development in children. In arts advocacy, the first component of success is that all advocates have one common belief for one common cause. At CCSD, we found that solidarity in numbers speaks fathoms and is vital. Belief in the arts as an essential element of education was the galvanizing agent and the backbone of the methodology that we used to make our united case for arts education.
The Components to Success: The Leadership of Strong Conveners
The next component is to identify someone or a small group of advocates who act as conveners. Every crisis that we faced was successfully overcome under the leadership of key conveners who assembled their communities to move forward as a unified voice. Each of these conveners is a trusted and approachable leader in his/her community. Conveners are volunteers and stakeholders and take responsibility to be the communication link and organizers. They make sure that all advocates are on the same page and, even more importantly, that they attend, in large numbers, every significant event or public opportunity where education policy and funding are reviewed and discussed. In other words, they are monitoring and they are informed.
Once you have conveners in a leadership role, parents, students and community members are your best advocates. Their testimonials are genuine, passionate and valuable. They bring personal and moving experiences to the table and, because of this, they appear more credible to legislators and school board members.
Educators and school administrators who are employed by the school district may be perceived as individuals with conflicts of interests during budget review and debates. This does not mean they should not participate or attend meetings; it only means you should use their public testimony sparingly, if at all. They have other important roles to play as advocates, such as providing information to parents and other advocates, and organizing student performances for board meetings and other public events. Parents who are able to express their passion for the importance of a complete education for their children are the ones who truly matter when it’s time to make the case for arts education.
The Components to Success: Networking & Unifying Your Community
Strong communities share grassroots common bonds. My particular “community” is composed of parents, students, educators and friends of music and the arts. Because I am a parent who is engaged and involved in many school district forums, others came to rely on me as a credible information source. Acting as a convener for our music community of parents, I used several formal and informal ways to communicate with everyone such as mass email blasts (the primary and most formal way to disseminate information), as well as informal lunches and coffee with friends, orchestra rehearsals and after-school activities, school PTA or PAC meetings, and most significantly, face-to-face contact at school or school district-wide arts events (festivals, honor orchestras, etc.). At the height of our campaign to “save the arts” many teachers and administrators asked me to speak to other groups of parents. All of these sources of networking unified our separate groups and were highly effective.
The Components to Success: Advocating Together Under One Strategy
Once your community advocates are organized and well informed about the issues, they must operate under a shared strategy. In our case, the urgency of the moment created an atmosphere of cohesiveness. It was not difficult for all of us to support one another and put aside personal conflicts or agendas. Strategy came easily as leaders of convening groups examined the big budget picture, discussed plans and implemented them. Some methods included public marches with banners and signs demonstrating support for preserving our arts programs. Others came forth as pre-chosen speakers at Town Hall Meetings. Most encouraged their groups to write to their legislators, once, twice, even thrice.
The Components to Success: Speaking Up at Community Forums And The Participation of Advocates COUNTS!
If the problem facing your school district is important enough, then the press will be present. In our school district, the leadership (school district trustees, superintendent and top-level administrators) commonly use forums like Town Hall or Community Meetings to define the issues and accept feedback from the public before decisions are made on what line items will likely be cut when funding resources are limited or diminished.
One system used was a color-coded index card system. For example, if your main reason for being present at the meeting were to save the arts, you would take a pink card and write your question or comment on it. Sports advocates would have a green card, and so on. Cards were collected and sorted. Random pulls of cards for speakers were conducted. At the end, the proctor would hold up stacks of all the cards grouped by like colors. This easy comparison was a visually effective statement. In more recent years, online surveys from stakeholders have been conducted. However, in all cases, data is gathered, shared, and decisions are made based upon the data.
The Components to Success: Adapting to 21st Century Needs – What’s Next?
To this day, we in Clark County have managed to sustain the majority of our arts programs. However with the changing landscape of education in the 21st century, it is probable that the way we see, teach, evaluate, deliver and design arts programs may also undergo a metamorphosis. Changes in national standards for arts education including accountability and assessments may be next in line, in tandem with aggressive educational reform taking place across the nation.
As arts advocates, this means we too must adapt in our perception, planning and execution of strategy for advocacy in our goal to keep the arts in our children’s school curriculum. But, in the process, we must never put aside the banner of arts education advocate. We must continue to actively promote the value and benefits of music and the arts for our children. Our children depend on us to ensure that their education is complete and to make certain that it must include the arts.
--- Bev Patton is a parent and arts advocate in the Clark County School District (Southern Nevada) Las Vegas, NV. She is Executive Director of the Las Vegas Youth Orchestras.