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Thanks to One Los Angeles Nonprofit, Budget Cuts Haven't Killed Off Art Class

At Los Angeles' Inner-City Arts, students get the kind of arts education that enhances their creativity, imagination, and entrepreneurial spirit.

In a survey conducted by IBM last year, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one competitive edge" of the future. And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently wrote that dance, music, theater, and visual arts "are essential to preparing our nation's young people for a global economy fueled by innovation and creativity."

Yet despite the need for employees and entrepreneurs with well-developed right-brain "soft skills" and the wealth of research indicating that students at schools with robust arts programs are more likely to go to college, school art programs nationwide are being decimated by budget cuts. In Los Angeles, elementary school art programs may soon disappear altogether. The result is that students are missing out on the opportunity to, in Duncan's words, "experience the arts in deep and meaningful ways and to make curricular connections with math, science, and the humanities."

But in the Skid Row neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles, one organization has been working to bring art back for the past 23 years. Inner-City Arts, a nonprofit known as one of the most effective arts education entities in the nation, offers an immersive artistic experience to every Los Angeles public school student, regardless of ability to pay.

Los Angeles magnet school teacher Robin Wynne-Davis says her third-graders, a "naturally curious bunch," have become more observant and descriptive since participating in Inner-City Arts. "They’re paying more attention to detail, and their critical thinking and creativity is blossoming," she says. "They’re opening their eyes to the world around them."

Joannza Lo, a second-year teaching artist at Inner-City Arts who spent January and February teaching animation and graphic design to Wynne-Davis' class, says many of the 200 students she instructs each week have never experienced art. "It’s possible for a student to go from kindergarten through high school in the district without any exposure to art at all," she says. After participating in the program, Lo says, students change their attitudes about themselves: "Their ability to take risks increases, and they learn to value each mistake as a new starting point."

Many Inner-City Arts projects require students to "let go of the idea of one piece of art as theirs" and instead learn a collective process of creating, Lo says, which encourages a sense of community. Classroom teachers frequently tell Inner-City Arts instructors they notice students sharing more with each other once they return to school.

Wynne-Davis' students also take a drama and media class taught by photography instructor Alxis Ratkevich and drama instructor Kristy Messer, which combines acting with the animation skills they’ve learned from Lo to produce a human pixelated movie. After a few exercise to get the students comfortable with acting out different emotions, the students watched Norman McLaren’s eight-minute 1952 experimental film "Neighbors"—a provocative social commentary that, in the age of scripted reading and math programs, would never be shown in the average third-grade classroom.

With a few brief directions from Ratkevich and Messer, the students got to work on their movie, a scene about a bus driver who begins to drive like a maniac and the reactions of the increasingly horrified passengers. The kids took turns directing, operating the camera, and acting out scene after scene of the terrifying ride. Their focus never wavered, and they quickly mastered the different skills involved.

Of course, education's emphasis nowadays is on test scores, and Wynne-Davis acknowledges that's the measure many people will use to judge whether her class' seven weeks at Inner-City Arts were worthwhile. But while research shows arts education does boost test scores, it's clear that the creative experiences students have in the program are just as valuable as any knowledge that could be bubbled in on a Scantron form. It seems clear that budget cuts will keep killing off arts programs in schools, but it's refreshing to know that programs like Inner-City Arts are still encouraging students to flex their creative muscles instead of just their test-taking ones.

Photo courtesy of Robin Wynne-Davis

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