(AP Photo/Christine Armario)
Miles from the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the red carpet, Steve Shin belts out tunes on a piano. It is scarred with nicks and love notes written in scratches. He is 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. That left many children in the world’s entertainment capital with no instruction in music. In addition, many have no access to 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.
Los Angeles is the nation’s second-largest school district. It is trying to enlist Hollywood studios to “adopt” schools. The idea is to provide students with equipment, mentorships and training. It is one 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. That is about 40 percent higher than five years ago. But it is 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. He now is the executive director for arts education. He has 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. It has become 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. He wants their help.
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. That is the 2001 law that required schools to meet annual targets for math and reading proficiency. If they didn’t, the schools faced intervention.
“We do see the pendulum swinging…toward a more well-rounded definition of what education should be,” said Scott Jones. He is 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, he surveyed every school. He wanted 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. Most had no alignment between elementary, middle and high school course offerings. He called on Hollywood executives to pitch in. He hired Alyson Reed, a dancer and actress whose credits include playing Ms. Darbus in “High School Musical.” Her job was to reach out to industry contacts and coordinate 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. For instance, 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. Others were simply unaware of the depth of the district’s problems, Reed said.
Kelly Koskella is president of Hollywood Rentals. The company plans to donate studio equipment. The equipment ranges from lights to fog machines. Koskella 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.
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. They include Disney, Sony and CBS. She 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.
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.”