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$4 million fund drive puts LAUSD arts education on center stage

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With song, dance and star-power tweets by Justin Bieber and Ryan Seacrest, the LA Fund for Public Education launched a $4 million campaign — and the largest initiative in city history — to revitalize arts education at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

At an event at East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy, dozens of students along with school board member Nury Martinez danced to The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" and Beyonce's "Move Your Body" to celebrate the new campaign.

"Arts Matter," with CBS Outdoor as a primary sponsor, will feature the work of L.A.-based artist Barbara Kruger on about a dozen city buses and on hundreds of billboards, bus shelters, wall postings, mall media and bulletins, LA Fund officials say.

"You can go from DreamWorks to Amgen, from Boeing to Mattel, they all say their No. 1 challenge is finding creative thinkers who can problem solve and who have the capacity and desire to learn new ways of doing things in an increasingly competitive market place," said LA Fund Chair Megan Chernin.

Kruger's "School Bus" will appear on city buses in L.A. through October; other bits of approximately 900 million impressions will appear through July 2013 in various "flights" of the campaign, said the LA Fund.

The artist was at the kickoff Monday and Kruger said she was "thrilled" and honored to be involved. Kruger, who called herself a product of public education, said she aimed to include thoughts that tied the "lack of education" to "catastrophe" in a humorous and critical way. One line on the bus reads "Give Your Brain as Much Attention as You Do Your Hair and You'll Be a Thousand Times Better Off."

"It's huge that [this campaign is] happening and hopefully it’s a wake-up call for people to understand the real importance of the arts in education and the importance of public education — not the defunding of public education," Kruger said.

Music star Justin Bieber and Ryan Seacrest are also participating in the campaign by spreading the word through Twitter and talking about why arts matter.

School board member Nury Martinez is sponsoring a measure that would make arts a "core subject" in the district's curriculum, prohibit further cuts, and restore arts education budgets to 2007-8 levels. It's on the board's agenda Tuesday. Although she developed it separately from Monday's announced initiative, it would benefit from the money the public awareness campaign generates.

"For me the issue of restoring and growing arts education and integrated arts instruction is a matter of social justice and educational equity," Martinez said. "Every single LAUSD student deserves equitable and rigorous learning opportunities that instill creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills we need to compete in the 21st cenutry workforce."

As state support for education has dwindled in recent years, the district has had to cut nearly $1.5 billion from its now $6 billion budget, with much of the cuts in the arts.

Since 2008, L.A. Unified has cut elementary arts education programs by 40%. The district now has about 200 art specialist teachers for more than 580,000 students - about one per 2,800. Arts teachers have to travel between schools to fill gaps.

Martinez's measure, along with the LA Fund's campaign, is an effort to reverse these cuts and make arts a robust and integrated part of public education.

"You can't be a citizen or fully human unless you participate in the arts, and you participate in many ways," said LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy.

L.A. Unified, like school districts across the nation, is working on rolling out a new "core curriculum" in 2014; Deasy said the arts should be a full part of that.

"In our schools we are moving very quickly from a changing curriculum to where art was a subject and you took it and you went to your art class and then you went to your math class to a point where no class can be taught with[out] arts being part of it," Deasy said.

"Every one of you deserves what every adult had when we went to school, and that's a fully-funded arts program," Deasy told the students at the event launch Monday.

The arts have helped 17-year-old Jaclyn Martinez, a senior at Esteban E. Torres High School and student body president of the school's Humanitas Academy of Art and Technology.

"It let me express myself in ways that I can't usually do in school," she said, adding that the arts have also helped with her studies.

"We performed being philosophers, where we read about it in English and studied about it in history...we put on an act as if we were the philosophers expressing our ideas," said Jaclyn, who is not related to school board member Nury Martinez. "It puts us in the role to help us memorize that more...we're so relaxed and we're in a comfortable environment."

Denise Grande, director of arts education for the L.A. County Arts Commission, said that recently civic leaders have begun to realize the importance of arts education. She said many studies conclude that arts improve academic performance, especially when integrated into the curriculum.

"Some of it is learning the arts deeply in and of their own right," Grande said. "But it's also about how do the arts connect with other subject areas. It's both arts integration and it's arts for arts' sake."

By having teachers incorporate the arts into their lesson plans, the arts are embedded into subject areas and are also harder to target in budget cuts, said Grande - who is also the director of "Arts for All" initiative.

The group has worked with 49 of the county's 80 or so school districts to help them incorporate and integrate the arts into their curriculum and teaching plans, said Amy Phillips, a spokeswoman for Arts for All.

In the late 1990s, L.A. Unified committed to a 10-year plan to restore art education to all schools and students in the district.

But during the recession it "got somewhat derailed and other priorities have come in, so it's nice to see them reaffirming, recommitting to getting the arts back on track," Grande said. "It's challenging, it's not an easy task, especially for a district the size and scope of L.A. Unified."

Read more: Teacher: Cuts to arts education are a 'great tragedy'

LAUSD considers making arts education a 'core subject'

Portrait in numbers of LAUSD's decline in arts education

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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