By Diane Claytor

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Diablo Ballet dancer Mayo Sugano leads a PEEK visit with 2nd grade students from Las Juntas Elementary School in Martinez, CA.

The newspapers and national magazines have been telling the story for years:  Public school funding throughout the country has been decreasing.  And obviously, when there’s less money coming in, costs need to be reduced.  Additionally, most public schools emphasize standardized testing, focusing their time and resources on the more “scholastic” areas.  Consequently, when school budgets are cut, one of the first areas to be hit are the arts – music, theater, art, singing – subjects that many seem to believe are less important than math, science and history.  As parents, educators, arts lovers, we should be very concerned!

A 2012 article in a National Education Association’s (NEA) publication states that fewer elementary schools are offering visual arts, dance and drama classes than a decade ago. “More than 1.3 million elementary students fail today to get any music instruction…And nearly four million elementary school students do not get any visual arts instruction at school,” the article noted.  “Deep budget cuts and the decade-long focus on reading and math have clearly taken their toll on the availability of arts instruction.”

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ABC 7 News did a story on the PEEK Program and how the arts enrich young lives. Click this picture to watch.

Many experts find this to be quite troubling. Research has found that learning music facilitates learning other subjects and enhances skills that children inevitably use in other areas. “A music-rich experience…of singing, listening and moving is really bringing a very serious benefit to children as they progress into more formal learning,” said the executive director of the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation.  This viewpoint is echoed by the NEA, whose president recently said, “We must focus on educating the whole child.  Students should be exposed to a broad and rich curriculum that includes not only math and reading, but courses and clubs that focus on dance, music, art, theater and other creative disciplines. The arts…enrich our lives. They have always offered ways to learn and express ideas,” as well as teach us to be more confident, compassionate and better able to relate to others.

Losing arts education may have a long lasting effect as today’s students advance into our future’s business leaders.  In the ever-competitive workplace, employers want employees that can problem solve, think outside the box, be flexible, and not see mistakes but instead see opportunities to change course, learn, and try again.

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Diablo Ballet dancer David Fonnegra tells this 2nd grade class how dancers lift other dancers.

A recent study in the Boston schools found that arts programs teach a specific set of thinking skills rarely addressed elsewhere in the curriculum – and that far from being irrelevant in a test-driven education system, arts education is becoming even more important.  “As schools cut time for the arts,” the study found, “they may be losing their ability to produce not just the artistic creators of the future, but innovative leaders who improve the world they inherit.”

Perhaps even more concerning is a finding by the U.S. Department of Education, who reported last year on the “equity gap” between the availability of arts instruction for students in more affluent schools compared to those in low income schools. “Economically-disadvantaged students simply do not have the same access to the diverse learning experiences – including arts – of more affluent students,” the report concluded.

The DOE’s report came on the heels of a study by the National Endowment for the Arts that specifically tracked the impact arts has on economically disadvantaged students. That report found that students who have access to arts in or out of school tend to have better academic results, better workforce opportunities, and more civic engagement.

Fortunately for all of us, there are privately funded organizations that are there to fill the large gaps left by the lack of arts instruction in our schools.  And in Contra Costa County, we are particularly lucky.

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The PEEK Program received commendations in 2011 and 2012 from CA Congressman John Garamendi. Accepting the award is (center) Jack Catton, President – Diablo Ballet Board of Directors, and Lauren Jonas, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Diablo Ballet

In keeping with the Diablo Ballet’s mission, which states in part that this professional dance company is “committed to enriching, inspiring, enlightening, and educating children and adults through the art of dance,” the PEEK program was co-founded in 1995 by the Ballet’s Artistic Director, Lauren Jonas. It’s one of the only arts education programs of its kind offered by a professional dance company in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties and has been endorsed by the California Arts Council. Since its beginning, PEEK has provided in-school arts education and free dance performances to more than 65,000 students.
There are three incredible elements to the PEEK program:

• Dance in Schools is an interactive program that annually goes into classrooms in 5 different schools, giving students the opportunity to participate in a collaborative process by creating their own short ballet. The students use their imagination and create their own short story to music, using their bodies to communicate; their “piece” is then performed for their classmates.

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Diablo Ballet’s Theatre Encounter brought under-served schools to see a free performance of “Coppelia.” Dancers Rosselyn Ramirez (left) and David Fonnegra (back) with students from Washington Elementary School.

• The Theatre Encounter is a FREE program that brings 750 low income school children from Contra Costa County school systems into Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts for a one-hour lecture/demonstration. The program, performed with stage lighting and live piano accompaniment, offers young people a true theatre experience.

• Adopt-a-Class, perhaps the Ballet’s most significant endeavor, is a comprehensive arts education program that brings dance and music education into an under-served second grade class twice a month for the full school year.  For the past 17 years, Diablo Ballet has brought this program to Las Juntas Elementary School in Martinez.  And for the first time, the Ballet has adopted Learning Without Limits, in West Oakland. Working with the second grade teachers, as well as the school’s music teacher, Jonas, the Ballet’s Artistic Director, develops curriculum, integrating existing areas of study, such as dance traditions from a specific country that the students will study for the year.

In addition to the classroom work, the Adopt-a-Class students have the opportunity to watch a rehearsal in Diablo Ballet’s rehearsal studio as well as attend a professional KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAballet performance at the Lesher Center.  This visit is often the first time these students have seen a live performance or been to a real performing arts theater and it includes meeting the dancers, many of whom speak fluent Spanish with the kids.  As Jonas has said, “this hopefully opens up their eyes to a whole new world.”

This year’s class consists of 90 second grade students and according to Jessica Loomis, the Las Juntas Music Teacher, every one of these kids loves this program.  This is Loomis’ fourth year working with the Ballet’s Adopt-a-Class program and considers herself – and the Martinez school – extremely fortunate.  Most kids in low income areas “don’t get experiences like this,” she said.  “It engages students of all walks of life and all abilities” and teaches them how to express themselves and their emotions with their body and not their voice.

The students work on their program throughout the year with Jonas and Diablo Ballet dancers, choosing a theme and a story line; then, through a combination of improvisation and choreography (terms the kids learn and use), they create a dance, expressing their story with their bodies.   The program concludes with an end-of-the-year presentation to families and friends, as well as to the first graders, giving them a preview of what they’ll be able to do the following year.

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Diablo Ballet dancer Edward Stegge works with the boys as they learn a dance combination.

Loomis believes that second graders, at 7-8 years old, are the perfect age for this program.  “They’re old enough to understand the concepts but young enough to not feel self-conscious.”  She also said she notices a difference in the older students who have already been through this program.  “The fifth graders seem to be less self-conscious” than most typical 10-11 year olds.

A former Las Juntas PTA President called this the “perfect program.  There’s not one child that doesn’t participate, not one child that doesn’t feel it,” she said.

Diablo Ballet could not make this possible without generous contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations.

So, while decreasing funds may prevent the public schools from always being able to give our children everything they want and need, we can all be grateful for the concern and passion of private organizations that make it their goal to fill those needs.

For more information on Diablo Ballet’s PEEK Youth Outreach Program, please click here.

Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates. She’s a staunch believer in arts education and is extremely impressed with Diablo Ballet’s PEEK program, ensuring that children of all economic levels have the opportunity to experience the power of dance.

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