The students at Bauer Speck look a little different this year. Some are a couple inches taller, and some grew a shoe size, but the biggest change in students is what Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator Brent Moser calls a “change in spirit.”
“It’s taken over the school,” Moser said. “It’s palpable. The kids are excited to be there, they can’t wait for VAPA, and they’re taking that excitement back to their academic classes.”
Bauer Speck, one of Paso Robles Joint Unified School District’s more socioeconomically-challenged schools, has been the center of the shift in providing more visual and performing arts at PRJUSD. The school is an arts magnet, and part of a bold move to add Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) to the school day, in a time when California schools have been moving further and further from including the arts in regular curriculum, despite the Common Core Standards that include VAPA in the grand plan.
This began with Superintendent Chris Williams, who came to PRJUSD three years ago with a plan for all students to succeed. He and his administrative team decided to take in VAPA after much research and contemplation on student success. They studied elite and high achieving programs, from California and New York, concluding that the best schools all had rich and vibrant VAPA programs. It made sense to include the Common Core VAPA standards. The framework was written and just needed implementation.
With full support of the school board, and Williams decided to bring back the arts, providing art, music, and dance for every child in elementary school, and enriching the VAPA programs in middle school and high school.
At Bauer Speck the children are permitted to choose two art-based electives during the day.
Other elementary schools in the district have weekly opportunities to participate in drama, learn the recorder, piano, choir and other instruments.
“It’s a pretty simple model, but a lot of work goes into it, and there are a lot of moving pieces,” said Williams.
Last year 40 students in the Bauer Speck orchestra performed a violin recital in the auditorium – a first in PRJUSD history. Each child performed a brief violin solo. It’s the kind of thing that moved VAPA Coordinator Moser to tears.
“It was beautiful,” Moser said. “It was so incredible. Very few of them had any previous training or owned their own instrument.” Partnerships in the community have provided the violins for these young musicians. Moser and Williams expect more local support as the program grows.
According to Williams, attendance rates are up. Academics are improving. More children are looking forward to going to school.
Which makes Paso a bit of a revolutionary model for the rest of the state.
If the arts curriculum was one that Paso schools could get behind, the public proved to want the change just as much. According to Williams, community survey results showed the parents of PRJUSD students want more art, more dance and more music.
Williams felt the direction he and his staff were going was justified after meeting with families and community members. He said the community has been collaborating since the beginning of the shift to make sure these programs succeed. Other districts may have limited art programs or after school arts programs, but Paso took it one step further: It took the Common Core Standards for ‘core’ subjects to include what was originally planned for the arts in U.S. schools and elevated the Visual and Performing Arts as a core subject. Paso students, from elementary to middle to high school are all learning art during school hours, each week.
Three years ago Williams was looking at a yearly budget for the arts that was a mere $5,000. But it was a start. A clean canvas.
And with pages of research results he was able to convince PRJUSD leaders to make a real commitment to make the arts just as important as any other subject.
Parents are finding they don’t want their children transferring out of Bauer Speck. All of a sudden, it’s more fun going to school. Out of district families are now seeking out the arts programs at Paso and waiting in line for interdistrict transfers. And with Measure M, a bond issue renovation measure approved last November, Williams said the VAPA program at the Arts Academy at Bauer Speck will see $25 million to expand their structure and school facility.
Stay tuned to hear about more local performances, like last year’s Bauer Speck Violin Concert, or the drama “signing ceremony” when, just like sports signing ceremonies, PVJUSD teachers and staff honored drama students who received scholarships to places to top schools like UCLA, NYU, and Southern Utah University.
Moser, who has a creative background as a drama teacher, said the attention and importance given to the arts in Paso schools is a cultural shift and even an expectation now.
“One of the reasons I love my job so much is because that right side of the brain, that controls the creative function, that compliments the left side – we’re seeing it every day, and you see kids connecting on deeper levels in other subjects that they may not connect to as well. Our brains are wired to be creative and it stimulates all sides of the brain and body.”
“The vision is so obvious,” Moser said, mentioning the redesign of the budget to accommodate such arts programs. “Because it’s not just 40 violins on this [Arts Academy] site. Those kids are going to go to the middle school and the high school. So there’s this long-range commitment to the arts by Mr. Williams and our governing board that is just phenomenal.”
At the school district kickoff last Wednesday, two staff members spoke of the impact of the arts on their children and the student band played to elevate the spirit competitions. Williams said Lewis Middle School won most spirited, but the creative changes are district-wide.
School started on Monday and every single campus has something special going on. Every elementary student participates in a dance lesson a minimum of once per week. At the Arts Academy at Bauer-Speck, students receive a dance lesson twice per week with certified dance instructors. Dana Budd, the Juilliard-trained professional dancer, still teaches as Bauer Speck, and heads the curriculum development and instruction for the dance program as an administrator.
“That’s been pretty amazing to see,” said Williams, whose own daughter is a dancer and captain of the dance team in her senior year of college as an ag/business major. When his son was growing up, Williams started looking at the components of brain research and spacial temporal development and music. Studies show early music exposure better develops the brain for success in subjects like math. “We began to put him in music at two-years-old so he would get different experiences and learn. He began to love drama and music.” His son is working on his master’s degree in college, and playing guitar and singing are big in his life. Both Williams’ children perform regularly in their chosen artistic mediums.
“I’ve learned a lot of key components from my daughter at an early age, not only the hard work, the discipline, working as a team, but being able to perform and speak publicly, the connectivity with other students and community,” Williams said.
The ability to connect kids to great people and great programs provide additional opportunity for results and also self esteem and ensuring that these kids have a program that aligns with building a top-notch district,” he said.
Williams sees the new VAPA programs as a big part of why children want to be at school.
“We’ve had tremendous growth. We’ve had teachers from all around the United States that have come in, a new band teacher for our high school out of Houston, Texas. He’s doing a great job.” Williams said the district’s new, young, energetic band director, Kevin McDonald, not only leads the high school band, but the elementary and middle schools as well. The vertically integrative plan is to grow the spirit of music early on, which will expand the band by the time the kids get to high school.
“We also provide art, music and dance in middle school as well as the high school, and those are going to be predicated, obviously, on kid’s schedules,” Williams said. This year there are six dance periods at Lewis Middle School and four dance periods at Flamson Middle School. Williams said the dance teachers at the middle school are highly qualified, certificated teachers, as are all the VAPA teachers in his district.
Williams said the district began introducing baseline core ‘Exploratory Music’ in kindergarten and ‘Intro to Choir’ in first grade, then novice to advanced music in second grade. Last year Paso had third graders at five elementary schools learning the recorder, and at Bauer Speck, they rolled out a piano/keyboarding class.
“If you look at the data, it really shows boys and girls love the art, music, and dance, and when you look at survey results, you see there is a true belief and true culture that our community believes in it. Knowing that your child not only gets art, music, and dance on the weekly basis, but they also have physical education,” Williams said.
By September of this year free, after school classes in the arts will mimic the free after school sports that Paso offers students. About 800 students between third and fifth grade at every elementary school may perform or compete in various sports and arts programs. Williams, Moser, and the elementary school principals are working on developing a scope and sequence for each site to provide as many as three days of after school visual and performing arts based programs, fully funded by the district.
“It provides a great opportunity. Our ultimate goal for our kids to be able to perform regularly in performing arts, just like our athletes do on Fridays,” said Williams.
Also new is a unique opportunity for PRJUSD high school students to participate in a paid work study program, a small business art studio for young artists. The two-year-old program is run out of Studios in the Park, a gallery in the downtown square. The gallery has an inside portion dedicated to Paso Schools, where select Paso High School students can show their art in the gallery, work as a professional artist selling their art, and keep 80 percent of the revenue they earn. The program allows up to eight students at a time to work various shifts under a work permit, and themes change every six to eight weeks. One high school senior made more than $3,000 last year from selling his ceramic artwork in the space.
“When families come in through Studios in the Park, they not only get to see some outstanding artwork from professionals, but also our students, and they get to intermingle with our students and see the fantastic work that’s being done,” Williams said.
“I don’t know of anyone that has an independent, stand alone art studio that is accessible for students,” said Moser. The studio showcases student work all the way from elementary to highschool, with video displays of theatre and dance performances, as well as physical pieces of art for sale, costumes, student-written scripts, and an entire wall dedicated to the student artist-in-residence. He said the children are elated when they make a sale.
Another worthwhile opportunity for last year’s sixth graders was a final art lesson at Hearst Castle.
Paso schools are off to a creative start to the school year. Pat Butler fourth graders were taking turns drawing one another in various poses Wednesday morning with their art teacher, Ms. Jessamyn. The students were showing enthusiasm and great interest in the project. Perhaps that change in spirit Brent Moser was talking about has spread to all the campuses. The arts have a way of keeping the brain engaged, as evidenced in the bright energy of Jessamyn’s classroom, but the arts also have way of changing the culture of learning for students. For Paso schools, these successes are already being firmly expressed on canvas.
You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or comments.