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So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Music on the move: traveling teacher serves 350 LA Unified students (photos)

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Linda Mouradian's morning often goes like this: she fishes through a packed supply closet to grab some extra reeds for woodwinds, refills a candy bag, and pulls a load of laundry out of the dryer - not of clothes, but cleaning rags to wipe off white boards. 

Then Mouradian piles it all into the trunk of her car, where she keeps a cart filled with sheet music and other supplies.

Mouradian is a traveling instrumental music teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District. She juggles her work schedule between four different elementary schools.

"You need to have every single thing," she said. "You can't rely on anything being there for you."

She starts her day before sunrise - she likes to arrive at least an hour before the first bell so she can set up her provisional classroom each morning.

"Perfect timing, 6:45," said Mouradian, as she fastened her seatbelt and backed her navy blue Toyota Camry out of the garage. 

Mouradian is one of 216 traveling arts teachers employed by the district to teach music, dance, theater and visual arts to the district's 271,577 elementary students.

This is how L.A. Unified and many other school districts provide arts instruction to elementary school students. The district started the traveling program with music teachers decades ago. About fifteen years ago, it added traveling theater, dance and visual arts teachers.

"It's a way of providing a broader range of arts instruction across several schools and really allow students to have more specialized instruction," said Denise Grande, director of Los Angeles County's Arts for All, a coalition established by the county Board of Supervisors to help make the arts a mainstay of teaching in public schools.

Grande remembers learning the arts from a traveling teacher back in 1976 when she was an elementary student in Orange Unified School District.

Grande said school districts - particularly small ones - often use the model to combat funding challenges. But even one with a dream budget might use the traveling model for teachers with a specific, narrow expertise - so they can serve students at multiple schools. 

In Los Angeles Unified, budget cuts have dramatically reduced the number of traveling arts teachers in the past few years. At the program's peak in the 2008-2009 school year, the district had 378 traveling arts teachers. 

Over the years, the number of traveling arts teachers in the district has fluctuated. During the early years of Mouradian's career with L.A. Unified in the 1970s, she said a shortage of teachers meant schools would get a traveling teacher for just four years at a time. Today, all elementary schools get at least one traveling arts teacher.

"We are not where we envision ourselves to be, but we are definitely on the path," she said, adding that's she's seen the district make slow but steady progress on arts education. "That's really encouraging to me. That's why I never lose hope."

Clarinet player Jennifer Mata is one of Mouradian's fourth grade students at San Fernando Elementary.

"I think she's kind of brave," Mata said. "She travels to her house to all the way here, she gets all her stuff, she packs them and then she brings them out."

Mata said she likes having music instruction only once a week because it gives her time to practice in between. But third grader Jocelyn Ramirez said she wishes she had music class everyday.

"I want to learn more and more and more about the violin," she said. "Music is great."

The school's principal, Maria Awakian, said arts instruction in the district is far from stable. This year her school has four traveling arts teachers, but she said that's not something she can depend on. 

"We do have to advocate as principals to ensure that we have access," she said. "This year we were pretty fortunate. You know, some years we do have to fight a lot more for it and sometimes we're in danger of losing it." 

Mouradian teaches 101 students at San Fernando Elementary - that's about 15 percent of the school's student body. 

Mouradian said ideally she'd teach fewer students, but she finds it hard to turn students away. She let some classes slip above 40 students before finally cutting off enrollment. Still, eight students are on her wait list at San Fernando Elementary, hoping another student drops out.

Joshua Lazo, 9, is one of them. He lobbies Mouradian for a spot every week. He wants to play the flute.

"We're still waiting honey, you're on the waiting list," Mouradian said.

"But this kid, he said that after his music time, he's gonna quit," Lazo said.

"Well he didn't yet," Mouradian replied. "You're on the waiting list honey, don't worry."

"I think that there gonna be an extra one just for me," he confided.

Mouradian said moments like this pull on her heart strings. She wishes every student who wants to play an instrument would have the chance.

"I hate the day I have to make the decision" about who to take off the wait list, she said. "It's the worst day of the whole year for me."

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