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It’s Fifth-Grade Music For All Under San Diego Unified Arts Plan

Russ Sperling, director of San Diego Unified's Visual and Performing Arts Dep...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Russ Sperling, director of San Diego Unified's Visual and Performing Arts Department, leads band students during practice for the San Diego Pride Parade, July 14, 2016.

San Diego Unified plans to offer fifth-grade music at all of its elementary schools within the coming weeks.

The move targets persistent complaints that schools south of Interstate 8 weren’t getting equal access to arts education. But it elicited new complaints in other parts of the district; the effort required some schools to give up additional programming they already had.

The discord is perhaps an early growing pain in the district’s five-year plan to harmonize a previously haphazard approach to arts education. As with most districts, a combination of budget cuts and shifting federal strategies had gutted arts classes at some schools while others held on with community support.

The Visual and Performing Arts Strategic Plan enters its second year this month. It aims to bring “equal daily access” to arts education to every student by 2021.

Visual and Performing Arts Director Russ Sperling presented on his department’s progress at a board meeting this month.

“I can report that 42 percent — 42 percent — of our secondary students are enrolled in visual and performing arts classes,” Sperling said. “I can report to you that’s higher than the county average. That’s higher than the like-district average. That’s higher than the state average.”

A federal survey released this year showed 33 percent of eighth graders in the western United States were enrolled in an arts class in 2016, down from 35 percent in 2008.

Sperling also highlighted a new performing arts center at Patrick Henry High School, a new arts emphasis at Sequoia Elementary School in Clairemont, and the district’s use of $3 million in federal Title I funds to bring teaching artists to low-income schools to collaborate with core-subject teachers.

Sperling said his next goal is to expand choral and instrumental music to every elementary school. He plans to do it with help from a new private foundation.

Sperling’s department has not been immune to recent budget cuts, having lost four teachers this year and the federal funds that brought teaching artists into low-income schools. (The district found $700,000 to keep the program going.) Sperling said The Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Foundation, chaired by former San Diego Arts and Culture Commissioner Larry Baza, will have more capacity than the district to tap philanthropic dollars.

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Such foundations, typically run by parents, are how many schools maintain programs during budget cuts. Sperling said The VAPA Foundation’s board, on which he and school board Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne sit, would be transparent in its dealings. He added it would have to report its expenses to the Internal Revenue Service.

“I think we have a long way to go,” Sperling said. “But every (school) board member, they really all do want every student to have arts education.”

Year two of the district's five-year plan to expand arts education also comes with a new private foundation to help cover costs.

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