Irvine Unified gets surprise $20 million for arts and science enrichment

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On Monday afternoon, teachers and students from several elementary schools headed to Portola Springs Elementary School thinking they were going to sing, play music and show off conduct science experiments at a special assembly. They were in for a surprise. 

The event was secretly a gathering to announce a $20 million donation to fund arts, music and science programs for fourth-sixth graders in the fast-growing district of more than 30,000 students. 

"We just erupted in cheers and we were all giving a standing ovation," said Hee Jeong Przytulski, who teaches wind instruments to fifth and sixth graders. "It was a big surprise to me."

The grant from the Irvine Company, a private real-estate investment group, will help to fund more than 30 teachers at the district's 24 elementary schools over the next ten years. The gift extends a similar 10-year investment the real estate group made to the district in 2006.

In the years since, the district has been able to build high-tech science labs, and hire specialized elementary science teachers. The 7,000 fourth-sixth graders in IUSD receive vocal or instrumental music instruction twice a week, as well as instruction from arts specialists throughout the year.

Przytulski, who has been with the district for 17 years, says when she started her career, the end of every school year would come with a pink slip. After the Irvine Company funding came in 2006, she had stability. And Przytulski says building the program up at the elementary level has reaped benefits for the district overall.

"It’s so important that we have this opportunity for the younger students because it’s kind of like a tree. If you just cut off the trunk of the tree, we really wouldn’t have anything on top," she said. "So I think this program really sets a great foundation for the middle school program and the high school program."

"I just I never truly realized how lucky we are," said eighth grader Kevin Miura, who has studied violin in school since fourth grade. "It’s kind of hard to imagine being in a district without all this because I’ve always grown up with it."

Irvine Unified superintendent Terry Walker said the funds helped the district sustain arts instruction during the recession and were particularly helpful in keep schools up to date during the shift to the Common Core and the new science standards. 

"In our district we consider it to be a critical and essential component of our promise to create the highest quality education experience we can envision," he said. "That's really infused in how we think about the arts." 

The 2006 gift tripled the amount of funding allocated toward enrichment programs in arts and sciences previously. Currently the district's annual budget is around $250 million, and while a large donation like this is monetarily valuable, Walker says it's important for the district's mission.

"It send a message that this is a community that values these kinds of special opportunities to support and enhance what's happening in the lives of students," Walker added, "and creating learning environments that are unusual, but very powerful."

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