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Confusion reigns as LA schools flip-flop arts education plans

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As the school year draws to a close, many teachers, principals, parents and school board members have found themselves stuck in a whirlwind of confusion. The subject: arts access.

Over the past few months, Los Angeles Unified School District administrators have put out pieces of an expansion plan — a budget outline here, new teacher assignments there — that seem to contradict each other and in some cases seem to reduce arts instruction time for some students, rather than follow the school board's mandate to increase it.

They announced plans to reduce elementary school orchestra classes from a year-long program to one semester — then reversed themselves. Shortly after, schools that had orchestra for years suddenly found out they'd been cut for next year.

"It does seem like it's been a big secret," said Robin Nixon, an elementary music teacher in the district who will no longer be teaching kindergarteners at LaFayette Park Primary Center due to new assignments for next year. "I feel like we haven't really had the chance to communicate with our advisors, with our administrators, and decisions are just being made." 

Nixon is caught up in the latest example of the school district's seemingly ever-changing plans. She and other arts teachers were surprised last month when they got their assignments.

None of the 18 primary centers run by the district, which serve pre-K to 2nd grade students, were given art teachers for the upcoming school year, according to United Teachers Los Angeles arts chapter chair and teacher Ginger Rose Fox. No teachers means no dedicated arts classes.

"It's just unconscionable that direct arts instruction would be taken away from our youngest children," she said.

RELATED: School board members want answers on district's arts plan

Some art teachers told KPCC their bosses said primary centers had been cut and wouldn't be receiving art or music instruction in the fall. 

In an interview, L.A. Unified's head of curriculum, Gerardo Loera, said that's not true.

He said primary centers will receive at least the same level of arts instruction this fall as they did in the school year that just ended.

But in a subsequent email, district spokesman Tom Waldman said primary centers are getting cut. They'll receive one semester of arts next year, down from the two semesters they got in 2013-14.

After some primary center principals called administrators downtown to complain, some reported they were told they'd get visual arts teachers. 

"The arts are extremely high priority," Loera said. "It's very much front and center in the nature of the work that we're doing."

The changes come as district administrators try to meet an October 2012 school board mandate to increase arts access. The board passed a resolution elevating the arts to a core subject on par with English and math, instructing administrators to vastly expand spending on arts instruction for the district's 650,000 students.

After months of delay and busted deadlines, administrators recently released a budget that would restore nearly $16 million in arts funding by the 2016-17 school year.

But lots of details were missing. And as the plan rolls out in jerks and spurts, some said it's uprooting programs that have been working well for years. 

Administrators proposed a plan in April to restructure elementary arts access into short mini-courses for third, fourth and fifth graders for the 2015-16 school year. The idea was to give more students access, although for much shorter sessions.

After KPCC reported the cuts, teachers and parents complained. In a subsequent public meeting, administrators said they'd hold off on implementation. Then they changed course again. In a June 10 interview with KPCC, Loera said they're implementing a pilot version of the shortened lessons this fall. 

The pilot consists of reduced, nine-week visual arts, dance, general-vocal music and theater courses. General-vocal music had been a full year program for decades. 

Bertrand Elementary School in Reseda is one of about 30 schools that will participate in the pilot. 

"It was thrown at me without a lot of understanding of what it is," said Esta Herman, the school's principal. "I'm a little apprehensive."

For the 2013-14 school year, the school had a general-vocal music teacher for the entire year, plus received one semester of theater. 

"What I don't understand is, I thought things were getting better not worse," she said.

Herman said she'll ask the PTA to pay for a part-time teacher to make up for the lost semester of arts instruction. But she's not sure if there's enough money. She tried to tell parents about the changes at a monthly meeting, but struggled with how to put it.

"I don't really have a good understanding to be able to explain it," she said.

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