Five Fundamentals to Creating a District Arts Plan
Although each of us can probably recall a time when success could be defined as not losing (too much) ground, we all want to feel like our efforts have been worth the commitment and have made a lasting difference in some way.
During my ten years at ArtsEd Washington, we saw these rewards when we worked with school principals implementing the Principals Arts Leadership program to help them be effective instructional leaders for the arts. This program confirmed the importance of the principals’ role in the day-to-day provision of arts learning and also illuminated for us how difficult that role is to sustain without the context of a supportive school district publicly committed to the arts.
The most profound and direct way for a school district to make such a commitment is by developing an arts plan. Every school district has a multitude of plans - strategic plans, turnaround plans, school improvement plans, emergency plans. Yet very few have a documented arts plan.
For more than a decade, groundbreaking work in LA County led both by Arts for All and California Alliance for Arts Education has promoted and implemented the district-level planning approach and has demonstrated how foundational (literally) an arts plan can be. More recently, major urban school districts - for example Boston, Seattle, and Chicago - have created district-level arts plans and embarked on significant implementation steps.
Once a district is ready to embark upon a system wide approach to the arts, here are five fundamentals that will lead to a successful and fruitful process, not to mention a robust and feasible arts plan:
1) Enlist the right team. District leadership is essential: the superintendent or a senior designee such as the Chief Academic Officer must be at the table along with a mix of principals, teachers and central office staff. A plan will not be co-owned in the community, however, without intentional engagement beyond the district payroll. Leaders from respected community groups, especially those representing minorities served by the district, PTA, arts and cultural leaders, and local funders or business representatives all contribute to the rich, high energy conditions where new ideas will emerge and creativity will flourish. The leadership team should have a balance of geographic and grade level representation districtwide.
2) Start where you are. A data baseline which maps out the current arts education provision in the district - warts and all - is an essential starting place for the newly formed team. It also provides a baseline against which future success can be measured as time (and implementation) goes on. Depending on the district size, the overall picture can be presented in an aggregated way, taking the 60,000 foot view. What should be carefully disaggregated, however, is the provision actually happening for the various sub-groups of students, such as minorities, English language learners, special needs students and students living in poverty. Owning and wrestling with the data, no matter how unfortunate the story it tells, is a powerful catalyst for equity.
3) Connect to the district’s strategic plan. Every district has one and it’s the ultimate roadmap for the allocation of both time and money - the two barriers most often cited in relation to the arts. In most strategic plans, there’s no specific mention of the arts, so teasing out the ways that arts complement it becomes even more critical. In fact, this leverage can be the way to secure the development of the arts plan in the first place. An early planning conversation that delves deeply into the intersections between the arts and the strategic plan goals will set a powerful frame within which the arts plan can be aligned to have access to implementation resources.
4) Trust the expertise in the room. If the heavy lifting of fundamental #1 has been done well, then the people who know the most about the district and are most highly committed to its success are at the table. The facilitator or architect of the process doesn’t need to be an expert on the district itself but instead can focus on asking the right questions and guiding the discussion so the leadership team explores the strategies and practices that have been effective in other communities. Their internal understanding of the local assets and opportunities will help adapt these concepts and ideas for district application and success.
5) Focus on students as the central motivation. Ensuring that every planning meeting has time dedicated to why the arts are important - essential - for students deepens the engagement and commitment of every team member exponentially throughout the process. Throughout the trajectory of the plan development, these discussions can range from the personal (team members drawing on their own experiences), through anecdotal (sharing stories and videos of other communities’ work) to data-driven (such as the resources in ArtsEd Search.) Each conversation focused on “Why Arts?” intensifies the team’s shared commitment to securing the benefits of arts learning for the students of their community.
As ArtsScan shows, most states have strong arts education requirements in place, and the school district level is where policy is turned into practice. If each of us helps catalyze and support district communities in identifying how they can build a plan to put the arts in place, imagine the system-wide, sustainable gains. What better reward could there be for our efforts?