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Contrary to recent reports, arts in LAUSD starting to expand, says director

Mike Szymanski | November 5, 2015

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Rory Pullens LAUSD

Rory Pullens

Despite recent media reports that the arts are doing poorly at LA Unified schools, the director of the district’s arts programs, Rory Pullens, said quite to the contrary, things are better than they have been in a long time; it’s just that nobody knows it.

“We are really encouraged and really excited about what’s been happening in arts in LAUSD,” said Pullens who just ended his first year as executive director of the district’s Arts Education Program.

“As of today, I can tell you that there is a full-time certified arts teacher in every school in the district,” Pullens said. “We are overjoyed that we have 45 new arts teachers this year, which is the first time in over 10 years that there are new arts teachers on the roles.”

And, most importantly, he said, the district budget for the arts has increased nearly 40 percent. When he started, the district allotted $18.5 million to the arts. When he took over the program, the board added $2.5 million more. As his second year begins, the arts has $26.5 million. Of course, it’s still a far cry from the $78.6 million earmarked for the arts before severe budget cuts.

Pullens said he was thrilled that the Los Angeles Times examined the arts program on the front page earlier this week but wasn’t thrilled that the paper graded the schools, insisting that many of the grades were unfair and inaccurate.

“They didn’t take in all the of the data that we provided,” Pullens said.

He said he got a dozens of calls and emails from principals at schools that take great pride in their arts programs but still got a C in the newspaper.

Among those he heard from was Jeanne Gamba, the principal at Walter Reed Middle School in Studio City, which got a C despite that fact the school’s band, jazz ensemble and chorus have all won multiple state and regional awards. And, students apply from all over the district to get into the school because of those programs.

“I was very concerned that this could hurt our enrollment,” said Gamba, who was a first-year principal last year when the surveys about the arts program were filled out at each school. “There were many things that were left out when the survey was filled out.”

For example, the survey says that Reed has only two-to-four art teachers. They have seven. The survey shows that Reed has no media courses. Well, the school has a full Technology Academy. And, the survey didn’t reflect the parent involvement at the school, which was the biggest insult of them all.

“We have very active parent involvement,” Gamba said. “When I wrote Rory he was very supportive and responsive and got me to a tech coordinator to correct some of this.”

Pullens said the survey will be sent out again this year, and some of the questions will be stated more clearly. The data wasn’t meant to rate school’s art programs, but to assess what schools had already and what was most needed.

“It was a sore spot that when I got here there were 20 middle schools that had no arts programs whatsoever,” Pullens said. “We corrected that.” This year, they have arts and music at those schools.

“I don’t want to discount the reality that there aren’t challenges to address,” Pullens said. Some of the elementary schools, for example, have to share an art teacher that may only come to their school one day a week.

But, this is the first time that the district is going to higher education institutions to advertise that LAUSD is hiring in the arts. “We had a hard time finding enough certificated arts teachers this year,” Pullens said. “And we anticipate the need will grow in the following years.”

Pullens admitted that some of the principals may have downplayed the information in their surveys. “Some principals may have anxiety that if they put it down then it may go away,” Pullens said. “But the reality is that with this information we can figure out what schools need, and it won’t be a random hodge-podge about where we put our resources.”

One way he said he would help off-set costs is to bring in Hollywood-related businesses to help. The Sunset Bronson Studios and Sunset Gower Studios, the musician’s union and other local studios are pitching in, he said.

Just yesterday, he said, the Nickelodeon Studios brought in a few truckloads of supplies, including sets, costumes and sound equipment for the school district. “They are bringing resources and equipment that we will distribute to schools,” Pullens said. “Other studios are signing up for mentorship programs and coming to schools to talk about what is not only going on in front of the camera and on stage, but the industry behind the stage, like key grips and craft services and other career opportunities that pay really well.”

It took LAUSD a few tries to get Pullens to join the district, and at one point billionaire Eli Broad offered to supplement his salary for the Ramon C. Cortines School of the Visual and Performing Arts. Pullens said that the students will go to the Broad Museum, and that he will work with any foundation or charitable institution to help with the arts programs.

Pullens was hired by superintendent John Deasey and said he would like to see a new superintendent who “wants the district to excel holistically in technology, science, the arts, all equally well, and not one impacting the other,” he said. “A district like Los Angeles needs a superintendent who appreciates the arts.”

Pullens said that extensive research shows that strong arts programs keeps students in schools and “keeps them from extraneous activities that could get them in trouble.” He said the students exposed to arts classes are more likely to graduate and to do better in their other classes.

“Young people in the arts are less likely to get them involved in negative influences, and we have see how it transforms young people’s lives,” Pullens said. “We are going to spread that throughout the district.”


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