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Wilshire Crest among 20 schools that lost art teachers during winter break

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As the first day of spring semester kicked off Monday, Jocelyn Duarte, of mid-city Los Angeles, was back to the hustle of getting her kids out the door to Wilshire Crest Elementary School.

She juggled backpacks, lunch pails and winter break homework assignments. The paint on her son Julian's diorama book project was still wet from the finishing touches he'd just added.

But one thing was missing: Julian's snare drum. 

"What's going to be different is that we're going to go to school and we're not going to have our music program," Duarte said.

Days before the kids went off on break in December, Duarte and other parents at the school found out they would lose their music teacher - who had been coming once a week since school started. Students had to hand their instruments back on Dec. 17. They'd been expecting to play all year.

"Everything was so short notice," she said.

Wilshire Crest is one of 20 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District losing a day of arts instruction for second semester because student enrollment numbers dropped.

Other schools in the district benefited from enrollment changes: 40 received an additional day of arts instruction for second semester, according to the district's arts branch.

Four new arts teachers were hired to accommodate the change in student enrollment - two visual arts teachers, a dance teacher and a theater teacher, according to Steven McCarthy, the district's K-12 arts coordinator. 

The mid-year flip-flop is a symptom of the district's larger problem: it does not have enough arts teachers to go around. Thousands of students get no arts instruction at all.

"I don't know what other kids were thinking, but I was pretty sad," said Julian Cea, Duarte's son, remembering the moment he learned he was losing his music teacher. "I think it's a bad thing." 

Traditionally, elementary orchestra programs like the one at Wilshire Crest have always been year long programs. Schools would have to commit to an entire year to participate.

McCarthy said this was the first year his department had been asked to look at the "norm numbers" - a one-day enrollment picture all districts take about six weeks into the school year. Teachers are assigned to schools based on enrollment data.

"This is essential to maintain equity across the district," McCarthy said. He said schools should expect the same process next year.

The school district's arts efforts are coming back from years of harsh budget cuts - over the summer it released its new arts plan, which called for a "gradual increase" over the next four years of traveling art teachers. But many details of the plan's implementation still remain unclear. The district has yet to release a budget, which is more than six months overdue. 

McCarthy said he believed schools were notified of the mid-year arts changes in late November, and that art teachers were notified immediately thereafter.

"There was ample time for planning," he said. "But of course it would be our wish that every school would get more arts so there'd be an increase across the board."

Several teachers said they received notice during the second and third week of December - classes let out Dec. 20.

Karen Einstein, a traveling visual arts teacher, said she was notified by the district Dec. 9 that two of her schools would be changing. She had to give up plans for a community art show, among other things. 

"I was just amazed," she said. "Emotionally it was really difficult. It felt so hard to see it severed like that."

Einstein estimated that she's taught at more than 70 LA Unified schools since she was hired in 2003. She said a mid-year change makes it hard to build momentum and help students build sequential skills. 

Ginny Atherton, the former orchestra teacher at Wilshire Crest, said anything less than a full year of orchestra instruction for students is a fraud.

"Even if you do a whole year it's only a taste," said Atherton, who's also a traveling teacher. "It's just devastating to everybody."

Atherton started at her new school, Avalon Gardens Elementary School, in South Los Angeles, on Tuesday.

She said everyone was warm and welcoming at the new school, but she can't stop thinking about the kids she left behind at Wilshire Crest.

"In my heart, I still hope for a miracle," she said.

Duarte, Julian's mother who is PTA president at Wilshire Crest, was so upset, she started a personal campaign to get music instruction back to the school.

After dozens of calls, and help from the district's arts branch, she's made a connection with Adopt the Arts, a non-profit music program that partners with the school district.

She's crossing her fingers that the group will fill the music void starting next month - but she has no guarantees.

McCarthy said some nonprofits are using their own funding to help bring arts back to some of the schools that have lost teachers. 

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