How California Schools Are Using Art to Boost Achievement

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Fourth-graders in Ana Thomas' class at Peralta Elementary paint marine animals on fabric for a quilt. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

In a first-grade classroom at Peralta Elementary School in Oakland, children concentrate on detailed pencil drawings of scenes from the underground railroad. Safehouses and trap doors appear on paper. One boy is drawing dogs with pointy teeth.

Here at Peralta, art is never just about art. These first-graders are learning about history, but they're also practicing math, measuring with their fingers to figure out where to draw horizon lines. Teacher Pam Lucker is helping the students include perspective.

"If I look at this lady, for example, she takes up about three-quarters of the page. Your lady is a little bit bigger, especially her head. ... Do you see that?" Lucker asks a little girl.

After years of arts taking second stage to math and reading, a state task force is now recommending arts be returned to California classrooms as a core subject.


Peralta is a model for how art can be woven into every lesson. Even when other schools were dropping the arts, teachers here have integrated art and music into their classes for at least 15 years. Lucker says it helps her as a teacher.

Principal Sonia Aramburo tracks student test scores at Mary Chapa Academy in Greenfield, CA.
Principal Sonia Aramburo tracks student test scores at Mary Chapa Academy in Greenfield, CA. It’s too soon to say if art is changing outcomes, but there’s no question that students here are engaged. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

"Art and writing are ways that I can take the lids off my kids’ heads and see what’s going on," said Lucker. "It helps me understand what they’re understanding of what I’ve taught."

Teachers here believe there’s another benefit to art: It teaches kids how to think creatively, which they say is an essential skill for future jobs. Ana Thomas strives to teach multimedia to her fourth-graders. Right now, they're working on an interactive marine wall.

"It'll have these layers to it, where you can flip up and see, maybe the life cycle, with a flipbook, or there'll be a little plastic bag installed, where you can press a button and maybe hear the sound of the California harbor seal," said Thomas.

Embedding sound was the idea of a student, who is really excited to learn as much as she can about the harbor seal. That's one of the goals of arts-integrated classrooms: to hook students to really delve deep into their schoolwork.

How One School Reintroduced Art into Education

So why don’t all schools in California have as much art as Peralta?

Well, part of it is money. Budget cuts have pushed art out of many schools in the state. Peralta's principal, Rosette Costello, says parents and teachers have had to cobble together grants and fundraise like crazy to keep their program going. But she thinks there's another reason art is not part of the curriculum at many schools.

"There’s also cultures that say, 'Art no, drill and kill yes,' " said Costello. "You know, poor kids, art definitely no, drill and kill definitely yes! And they’ve got it totally backwards!"

It's true that schools that serve low-income students are less likely to have arts in the curriculum. By some estimates, students at the schools with the highest poverty are 50 percent less likely to have access to art in school. That’s partly because some schools dropped the arts to focus on reading and math, in hopes of bringing up test scores.

One school that used to have no art is Mary Chapa Academy in Greenfield, California. It’s a huge school in the middle of broccoli country, the Salinas Valley. The vast majority of students here are English learners, and many come from indigenous Triqui families from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico.

Sonia Aramburo is the principal of Mary Chapa. She says it was once the lowest-performing school in the state.

"I’ll tell you, when I first came, I was shocked," said Aramburo. "I believe that people believed that our kids could not learn."

Children try out new drumsticks at Mary Chapa Academy.
Children try out new drumsticks at Mary Chapa Academy. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Mary Chapa was in program improvement under No Child Left Behind. Up until this school year, most teachers had never done art in their classroom at all, ever.

"At first some of the teachers were like, 'I don’t even want to pick up a colored crayon, ’cause I don’t want to get in trouble.' Because for many years, we were not allowed to," said Veronica Hernandez, one of the teachers who's been here the longest.

This school year, Mary Chapa was selected to be one of 10 “turnaround arts” schools in the state. It’s a national initiative, led by Michelle Obama, to improve academic achievement at low-performing schools by flooding them with art supplies and teaching artists. The initiative started in 2011 at eight schools and has now expanded to 35 schools across the country.

High-profile artists adopt each school. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith adopted Mary Chapa Academy. He’s donated dozens of drums and guitars for music class.

Today, though, music teacher Christopher Lopez has the kids wailing away on the backs of chairs.  Students are preparing a musical production of "The Jungle Book" this spring, and the drum club is going to do a pre-show.

"We’re going to be using trashcans, we’re going to be using 5-gallon buckets, and we’re going to be using cement support molds, as drums," said Lopez. "So, the idea that percussion is everything: These guys can make music anywhere."

All 900 kids in the school get music once a week with Lopez. You can find him at any time of day teaching the kids to tune their voices to match a note played on an instrument, or to sing scales.

Introducing Art to All Classes

Teachers are trying out other kinds of art in their classrooms, too. The turnaround arts program has been in place at Mary Chapa only for a few months, but all the teachers have had some training. If you peek in the classrooms, you can find fifth-graders doing freeze theater tableaus of the Revolutionary War, or second-graders painting oil spills for a unit on the environment.

Fourth-graders in Sarah Betz's class have made haiku poetry boxes and  topographic maps with beans. She says integrating art has made a difference for her students, especially English learners.

A first grader at Peralta Elementary works on a pencil drawing.
A first-grader at Peralta Elementary works on a pencil drawing. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

"They’re able to tell me about what they’re learning, not just repeat what they’ve learned," said Betz. "And they ask questions about what they’re learning. They don’t just kind of skim over it."

At the first turnaround arts schools in the country, math and reading scores went up, more than at comparable schools that were trying other turnaround programs not using the arts.

It’s too soon to say if art is changing outcomes at Mary Chapa Academy. But there’s no question that students here are engaged.

"I love art because it makes the kids have a lot of fun and it makes us feel happy!" said Omar Garcia Perez.

What was school like for Omar when there wasn't any art?

"Boring! We had just to do math and math problems, and mathematics," he said.