California has long been renowned for its creativity, the engine driving everything from the entertainment industry to the technology sector. But decades of budget cuts and a laser focus on core subjects have pushed the state’s public schools to the bone for years.
Now, two years of trauma during a pandemic that has stolen more than a million lives and the fresh horror of mass shootings, experts say, underscore the pressing need for more social-emotional education pathways in schools. It’s a key reason former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Buettner, backed by many educators and artists, is issuing a mandate to restore art and music education to public schools, as a way to help children grapple with their feelings about growing up in a time of tragedy.
“Talk to any social worker, the first thing they do with a child with trauma is ask them to draw a picture,” said Beutner, who resigned after three years at LAUSD. “The arts are a key part of the therapeutic process.”
Once a classic value in a comprehensive education, the arts have long been sidelined in favor of math and science. But the epidemic has shined a bright light on the need to help children deal with trauma and find ways to heal, experts said.
“This can be the moment, a crisis can become an opportunity,” said Beutner, who shepherded the nation’s second-largest school district through the worst of the pandemic. “The state has a windfall. Why not use some of it to restore some of what we’ve lost?”
That’s why Buettner is pushing hard to bring back the arts, putting an initiative on the November ballot that would require the state to spend an extra $800 million to $1 billion a year from its overflowing general fund for arts and music education. That is almost four times the total budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. His campaign has been successful so far, garnering a million signatures in less than 90 days, more than needed to be on the ballot.
Arts education also received a boost when Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $1 billion for afterschool enrichment programs as part of his Expanded Educational Opportunity Program for the coming school year, pending budget negotiations with the Legislature. “We believe in steam, not stem,” Newsom said. “It’s the ‘A’ that’s missing, art and music.”
Can the Arts Help Children Recover from Deep Epidemic Trauma? Can creativity and self-expression enhance social-emotional learning at a time when mental health is at risk? Buettner, for one, sees arts education as a way out of the isolation of the past few years.
“If we can bring the arts back into the classroom, it can make a huge difference,” said Beutner, who had a personal epiphany when she discovered the cello in fifth grade. “It’s a way out of pandemic isolation, a way to connect with other people and gain a sense of togetherness.”
With the youth mental health crisis deepening into a national emergency, the Texas school shooting dominating headlines, child suicides on the rise and the pandemic still upsetting many parts of society, there is a renewed focus on finding ways to boost student well-being. in chaos
Two years of trauma scarred us all. The pandemic was arguably the most painful collective event of our lifetime, experts say, sparking a mental health crisis where children may be most vulnerable. The dire uncertainty of life today has left many children feeling raw and anxious. Very young children cannot even remember a time before the epidemic.
“Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we find creative ways to help children heal,” said Nora Zamora, executive director of social and emotional learning for the Alameda County Office of Education. “Trauma and healing-focused approaches that address the needs of students, as well as youth-serving workers, are not only innovative, they are critical to creating the conditions necessary to address epidemic trauma.”
“You have to meet kids where they are,” said Beutner, who sees art as a powerful instructional tool. “It is an existential challenge. The arts help engage children. Whatever you teach, you must first make it interesting. If you’re inclined towards art or music or animation, you can weave it through numeracy and literacy.”
If you want to educate the whole child, you have to tap into their social-emotional center and let them express themselves, experts say. Giving young people the chance to do everything can help reduce stress and boost self-esteem, paving the way for learning.
Art can be a safe haven for children to face big emotions, channel fear and frustration into creative work. Under the initiative, school leaders will choose what to spend money on, which artistic pursuits, from dance and drawing to animation, best suit the needs of their students.
“So many of our children are struggling with mental health issues during this pandemic,” said singer Katy Perry, one of the celebrities helping to promote the initiative. “Arts and music education play an important role in supporting the mental health of young people. Now more than ever, it’s important that we give all children access to this important resource.”
A sense of connection to the past can help young people through times of turmoil, experts say, as the social contract helps them feel more resilient under increasing pressure. Long, hard grinds of chronic uncertainty have been linked to increases in anxiety and depression, research suggests, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The arts can connect students to a world full of history, innovation, expression, representation, beauty, energy and inspiration – past, present and future,” said Chad Jones, executive director of the San Francisco Arts Education Project. “All of these things have always been important to educate the whole person, but through the pandemic, it seems even more important to find ways to really engage with students and make them feel connected to something outside of themselves.”
Musician/producer Quincy Jones, among a wide coalition of artists who support the proposal, said music saved his life. This is not hyperbole, experts suggest. Art can be an oasis for children struggling with a myriad of emotional struggles.
“There are countless examples of troubled souls finding a way through their tragedy or trauma by channeling their energy into something creative,” says Rush Rehm, professor of classics at Stanford. “Working and thinking creatively provides more than an outlet. It allows one to play, to escape the normal or escape the traumatic.”
Another proponent, actress Issa Rae, star of HBO’s “Safe,” sees art education as a way to champion equity in an increasingly unequal society. Schools serving low-income students, especially students of color, are far less likely to have strong arts programs, experts say, than more affluent schools. According to Beutner, only 1 in 5 public schools has a dedicated art teacher.
Rae sees the initiative as a way to reach children who lack the exposure to arts and culture that wealthy families often take for granted. Enrichment should not be limited to those who can afford it, some say, especially at a time when the gap between the haves and have-nots has never been wider. Finding their voice can be a game-changer for kids who haven’t been able to hear.
“This ballot measure will help define the commitment of the next generation of storytellers to ensure that all California students receive the high-quality arts and music education they deserve.” “This will especially benefit students from communities of color, who often experience a lack of access and equity in arts and music education.”
Efforts to restore arts and music education to a more prominent place in the school curriculum are long overdue, some say, and there is no better time than a period of unprecedented surplus coupled with children in desperate need of social-emotional enrichment.
“There has never been a more important and relevant time for the arts to go to work to heal and bring compassion, hope and joy to a divided and recovering nation,” said Julie Baker, executive director of California Arts Advocates. The Double Whammy of Systemic Racism and a Global Epidemic.”
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