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Working artists stimulate classes in California program

At a time when tight budgets are causing public schools to cut back on their arts programs, a recent report by the Getty Foundation shows that an increasing number of parents want their children to learn about art at an early age. In Santa Cruz, Calif., the local Cultural Council has eliminated tension between these two trends by designing a countywide program to bring local working artists right into the schools. It's a success not only for the school system, but for the council as well.

Five years ago, one art teacher served 15,000 children in the Santa Cruz County school system; today 90 professional artists -- paid by the Cultural Council -- teach dance, drama, painting, textiles, poetry, and music in the county's 44 elementary and nine secondary schools.

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The ``Arts in Education'' program grew out of an effort by the council to bolster sagging county involvement in the arts. In 1979, the council hired a New York community arts specialist, Ralph Burgard, to help reinvigorate arts here. Part of Mr. Burgard's approach was to identify new uses for Santa Cruz's cultural resources. When the idea came up to bring local artists into the schools, it met with immediate acceptance.

``When you hit on something that is a true need in the community, all sorts of ideas and people come forth,'' says Beverly Grova, council director.

Burgard helped the council avoid the common mistakes of forming a planning committee that did not truly represent local centers of influence, or designing a plan that, while admirable or ambitious, was inappropriate to the needs of the community.

The council identified a group of 150 civic leaders and business people and asked them to spend six months working out the specifics of the program and its funding. In that way, says Ms. Grova, the idea didn't have a chance to die on the vine: ``We gave it to the people,'' she says. ``The planners -- from business, school districts, city councils, as well as parents -- developed ownership,'' which made them feel that ``they had a stake in the program's success,'' she adds. Everyone contacted -- children, teachers, parents, principals, artists -- says the four-year-old program is working well.

Council members initially thought they might have trouble gaining support for art education from the more conservative southern half of the county. According to Grova, their fears were unfounded. ``Last year, the south had more artists per school than the north,'' she says.

Away from the steady buzz in Barry Burt's third-grade classroom at Quail Hollow Elementary, where weaver Judy Grigg is teaching Mr. Burt's students to make a simple loom, Burt says his students have ``greatly benefited'' from the program. Grade-school teachers ``have to teach 11 or 12 subjects in a week,'' he says. ``There's no way to be a virtuoso in any one area. These artists give the kids experiences we never could.''

Council member Valerie Wolf says that many of the artists have proved to be ``natural teachers,'' relating well to children. Said an eighth-grader of her painting teacher, ``He's great, not just because he's got a creative approach to our subjects, but he can also talk about [rock group] Led Zeppelin.''

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Parent Nancy Meyburg states, ``There are so many students per teacher today that teachers resort to giving out incredibly dull mimeographs to the kids -- as a time-filler. I'd rather have my child be doing something creative.''

Joan Denbow, principal at Quail Hollow, has found that ``some kids who don't do well in academics find they do excel in the arts . . . and that self-esteem is important for them.'' She also feels that ``children who aren't exposed to the arts at a young age often won't carry it with them when exposed to it later in life.''

Jerry Falek, a dance and mime teacher, says of his students, ``They learn self-discipline, focus, communication skills, and critical thinking. My third-graders can critique a dance better than my parents can.''

Because of influential supporters, local fund raising, and strong lobbying efforts in the local school districts and city councils, the Cultural Council's budget for the program has jumped from $50,000 to $500,000 in five years.

A budget this size enables the council to pay artists well and to attract high-quality talent. Tom Rickman, screenwriter of the Academy Award-winning ``Coal Miner's Daughter,'' for example, leads a workshop on creative writing.

How might a school get Mr. Rickman?

Each year, the schools receive a $5,000 grant from the council to be used for the program. A detailed catalog helps schools decide what type of program they would like -- ranging from Japanese theater, to crafts, to a writing or poetry workshop.

Artists are screened by a council review panel. Some artists do single performances; some are ``in residence.'' Many work with regular teachers to bring a new slant to different course materials.

The program has yielded some unexpectedly beneficial side effects. Teachers say morale has improved. They also report the artists have helped them see their children in a better light. Burt says, ``You have to play the heavy when it comes to academics, and it's good to get beyond that sometimes.''

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