Sunset School rallies behind its arts program
by TRACEY BARNES PRIESTLEY
WHEN MY CHILDREN BEGAN SCHOOL IN THE 1980s, we were introduced to the computer/math/science craze that permeated education then, and in many educational systems still does today. The rhetoric was compelling: If your child was to make it in this highly competitive, rapidly developing technological world, he/she had better get an education that emphasized these areas. And so their education began.
This is not to say that their schooling was completely devoid of all things artistic. But suggest the possibility of expanding the arts program or saving the music teacher's position and little snickers could be heard throughout the school board meeting.
So, like many parents, my husband and I took primary responsibility for our children's artistic education. Our house was non-stop art projects, there were music lessons for all three and we attended every performance the kids put on as members of the neighborhood "Red Barn Players." (The average age was about 7, but they were an imaginative, enthusiastic bunch of kids who offered a year-round theatrical season.)
However, over time we noticed something very interesting developing. It seemed as though the artistic types in education figured out that if they spoke the same language as the technology types, they might actually get their message across. Or perhaps it was that rare combo of artistic and technology types. Whatever prompted the change, all across the nation research studies designed to evaluate and test the significance of an integrated arts education began popping up.
The results were intriguing. Did you know that a child trained in music has a better chance of excelling in math than his non-musical counterpart? Makes sense to this non-math person. Think about the patterns in music, the discipline it takes to master a piece, the coordination required to make two hands do very different things at the same time, the mastery that leads to increased self-confidence. And what about those kids who undergo performing arts training? In addition to creative expression, they're learning valuable life skills -- cooperation, teamwork, how to listen, how to speak, ways to turn constructive criticism into a better performance, overcoming fear to experience the joy of success.
The research started gaining attention, and those who previously believed that finger painting was just refrigerator art began to cautiously rethink educational curriculum.
Twelve years ago, the Arcata School District took a bold step by offering an integrated arts education. Sunset School of the Arts was born and children have been thriving in this program ever since. Reflecting the value of this arts/academics approach, Sunset has been recognized as a California Distinguished School. It is also the recent recipient of the national award, "No Child Left Behind," from the Blue Ribbon Schools Program, which emphasizes growth and high achievement in reading and math. Sunset School and Dow's Prairie School in McKinleyville are the only two local schools to receive this award. They join just 214 other schools throughout the country that have been recognized as Blue Ribbon Schools.
Now, you may think that this is the good news, and it is. But there's more, and it comes from those Sunset parents and teachers who believe in the value of an integrated arts approach to education.
As budget woes hit the state and enrollment began to drop in the Arcata School District (between the housing needs of HSU students and the price of homes in Arcata, many young families with children are forced to look elsewhere for housing), Sunset School was facing some tough decisions. Not only did Sunset have to support its regular school programs but it also had to figure out how to keep alive the arts program that included music teacher Fred Tempas and art specialists Sam McNeill, Rudi Galindo and Christine Ernst. The Arcata school board announced in June that it would not scale back the district's music program, which meant that Tempas would continue working with the second through eighth grades. Sunset was then able to use funds administered by their School Site Council, a committee comprised of both staff and teachers, to secure McNeill, who offers music lessons to children in kindergarten and first grade.
But how would the remainder of the integrated arts curriculum continue if Sunset did not have these two other fine artists? (Regular classroom teachers can only do so much. Trust me, I know. I live with one.)
OK, here comes the really good news. Over the summer, parents and teachers from Sunset School met. Their goal? Save the remaining two arts specialists' positions. A letter went out to all Sunset parents asking for donations and the money started coming in.
Pretty good, right? But it gets better. An anonymous donor joined the efforts and promised to match every donation, dollar for dollar. The tally to date? A total of $17,640 has been deposited into a special Arcata School District fund for the retention of Sunset's arts specialists.
This is remarkable generosity from parents and community members. And it's even more impressive considering approximately 59 percent of the students at Sunset School participate in the free or reduced-cost lunch program, which means they are of limited income.
Is there any greater investment than the education of our children? I think not. My hat's off to the parents and staff of Sunset School of the Arts for taking stock of an unacceptable situation and doing something positive about it.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.