For years, when teacher Lynn Eisenhauer encountered a struggling student, she could count on one way to help that kid connect: music. A former high-school choir teacher, Eisenhauer found that if she could lure a kid in the door to sing, she could eventually motivate him in his academics.

Today, as K-12 arts facilitator for Tacoma Public Schools, Eisenhauer says the emphasis on the WASL has an unintended effect on at-risk kids: those that fail the exam wind up even more alienated as electives are cut. "The arts can help a struggling kid rise up," she says. "As a teacher, I can connect kids with content areas that are also important to them. The arts become the way to make math matter."

For all kids, supporters say, the arts are critical to development. As an arts advocate, Eisenhauer sees her role as raising arts education awareness in a climate of high-stakes testing. "I believe we can do it," she says. "But someone's got to be going to bat for it."

More and more, parents are that someone, with teachers, nonprofits, and communities on deck. The time and money allocated to the arts have shrunk. A 2005 Washington State Arts Commission report found that throughout the state, each week, 60 percent of schools offer an hour or less of music instruction. For visual arts, 69 percent of elementary schools provide less than an hour a week. And across the state and grade levels, theatre or dance offerings are minimal. A few years ago, Seattle Public Schools reduced Elementary Instrumental Music, or EIM, from one full day a week per school to one-half day.

"Washington State is now 42nd out of 50 states in funding education," says Sara Liberty-Laylin, Seattle Public Schools' acting program manager for the arts. "When you have that lack of funding, the first thing that goes is art and music. It's not just in Seattle, but across America." Locally, with infusions of money, time, and ingenuity, Puget Sound-area parents are rallying to keep the arts alive.

License to thrive

At Loyal Heights Elementary School in Ballard, parent Judy Peck wants the kids to learn to look at the world as an artist does. Once a month, Peck and 25 other parent-volunteer art docents visit each classroom to discuss an element of art -- line, form, color, texture. They present an artist's work, discuss the piece, and lead a related art project.

Peck, the program's co-founder and the mother of girls now 11 and 13, describes a session: If she brings a Picasso art print to a class of first-graders, she asks the kids to think about how Picasso used lines to create the picture. She says, "Tell me what kinds of lines you see. How would you describe that line in words: crooked lines, zigzags, wiggly lines?"

Loyal Heights students also benefit from a PTA-funded artist-in-residence program that has brought Japanese Taiko drummers, jazz musicians, and Salish artists to the school. In the past, parents applied for grants with the Washington State Arts Commission, but this year, its fundraising effort was so successful, the PTA decided to fund the program itself.

This year's resident artist is poet Laura Gamache, and the program's theme is "poetic license." When Gamache meets with the students, she typically begins by playing ice-breaker games, then moves on to read and study poetry through a variety of classroom exercises.

"Through their work with me and playing with words, they are gaining a license to participate in the reading and writing of poetry," Gamache says. "They have access to the language of poetry, they have heard its beauty; they made it themselves."

Gamache also met with the art docents and discussed ways they might integrate music and poetry with the art lessons. Carolyn Hostetler, chair of the Artist-in-Residence Program who has two children at the school, says the two programs try to coordinate when they can. Hostetler says, "When we were focusing on Taiko drumming and Japanese dance, some art docents led art lessons influenced by Japanese techniques such as origami and sumi painting."

Closing the gap

Grant Center for the Expressive Arts, a public elementary school in Tacoma, has a part-time art teacher and a part-time dance teacher. The school has its own dance floor and dance room, arts supplies for visual arts, and a kiln. There are a number of dance troupes at various grade levels, and drama productions twice a year. Tacoma is an open-enrollment school district, and 75 percent of the students attend Grant from outside the neighborhood. Families want to be part of it.

Justine Tvedt of Tacoma has a third-grade daughter at Grant. As co-president of the PTA, she believes wholeheartedly in the arts-specialized environment. The kids have many opportunities to perform in school productions and participate in after-school enrichment classes such as guitar and jewelry-making, which are taught by parents on a volunteer basis. Tvedt says the confidence-building of being on stage and learning new skills carries over to other academic areas. "It gives them confidence in math and reading," she says, a sense of "I can do this, I can achieve."

Grant's student body is diverse, Tvedt says, and parents contribute in numerous ways. Some who may not have surplus income can contribute their time or talent, such as designing costumes and sets for the school's drama productions.

Tvedt says the arts programs at the school are primarily parent- and community-supported. The school's annual auction raised more than $20,000 last year, replenishing the school's arts trust fund. The PTA also paid to send the staff to a training class for Arts Impact, a grant-funded program of the Puget Sound Educational Service District, which teaches educators how to integrate the arts into the curriculum. For example, in a social-studies lesson about an African country and its animal life, a visual arts instructor might use photos of giraffes to teach about line, shading, and positive and negative space.

Seattle Public Schools' Liberty-Laylin also supports arts integration. "Research shows that kids have various learning styles, and when you do an art integration piece along with a lecture, it seems to close the achievement gap for some people," Liberty-Laylin says.

In addition, the Grant community chose to use some of its district-allocated funds toward a part-time visual arts specialist. Art teachers disappeared from Tacoma schools about 10 years ago. Today, Eisenhauer says, "Visual arts are expected to be taught by the classroom teacher. Only one elementary school (in the district) has a visual arts specialist and that's Grant Elementary. That wouldn't happen without a strong parent group."

"Grant is fabulous, but it is serving a small amount of kids who are getting what I believe every child has a right to -- education and exposure," Eisenhauer says. To expand that sense of possibility, she is cultivating the arts at Tacoma's McIlvaigh Middle School, where a growing choir program has given kids a voice. The school has a high level of free- and reduced-lunch students, kids living in public housing, and poverty. The choir has grown from fewer than 40 students four years ago to 110 today. The school recently held a dinner and auction, which raised $8,000. Eisenhauer wants to fuel the momentum in a community of parents that is "rallying on such a level in a place where it's not inherently there."

Labor of love

After 18 years as a corporate finance lawyer, Scott Gelband was ready for a change. He left his work to spend more time with his family, and the Wallingford dad of kids now 12 and 15 was thinking about the next step. "If I could have created a dream job, it would be to take my lifelong interest in music and combine it with my entrepreneurial itch and have some beneficial social outcome," Gelband says.

That opportunity came when the new stay-at-home dad learned about the Leschi Music Partnership, an all-volunteer, low-budget program in which Garfield High School students and some Washington Middle School students teach fourth- and fifth-graders at Leschi Elementary School how to read music, and tutor them in playing their instruments. The program responds to the small amount of time allocated to music education. Marnie O'Sullivan, who created the Leschi program six years ago, says that because lower-income kids are receiving little in-school music instruction and can't afford to supplement their music education, they have difficulty participating in bands and orchestras at the high-school level. Some PTAs pay for added music instruction. "Parents are picking up the slack by having auctions and providing in-kind donations," O'Sullivan says. "Schools where parents can do that are lucky, and schools where parents can't are slipping through the cracks."

With his professional experience, Gelband hopes to help the partnership flourish and grow, through a new nonprofit entity called Seattle Music Partners. He hopes to duplicate the tutoring service at more locations, and widen the tutor volunteer pool. Last year, Gelband says, 70 students were involved in the program: 35 elementary-school students and 35 tutors. But the tutoring base could widen to college students, other high schools, or more adults. "There's a lot of self-esteem, comfort, and belonging that can come from a nourishing relationship," Gelband says. "It's not just showing a kid how to pay flute. It's about investing in a relationship."

In launching Seattle Music Partners, Gelband and O'Sullivan have been investing in relationships with other music organizations to come up with the money for their program. "We're not about competing with what's out there," Gelband says. "We will try to bring together the people and resources and provide these services as broadly as we can."

Meanwhile, O'Sullivan and Gelband emphasize that there are numerous paths for a family's involvement. It's O'Sullivan's wish that parents across the region gain more school-to-school awareness. Perhaps parents attending an affluent school's auction might raise a paddle to fund a need at another school, she says, or buy music books, even used ones, for an under-resourced school across town. And Gelband encourages parents to check the attic and donate an instrument that a student could use. "People do not have to be musicians to help this program flourish," he says.

The change agents

In 2000, Lisa Fitzhugh founded the arts-education nonprofit Arts Corps, targeting underserved communities in King County. At that time, "the arts were not a vital part of the school day and what was happening after school was very hit-or-miss," Fitzhugh says. Focusing primarily on after-school hours and low-income communities, Arts Corps hired professional teaching artists and started classes at community-based after-school programs: schools that keep doors open after hours, YMCAs, Boys and Girls clubs, "places that keep kids engaged from 3 to 6 p.m.," Fitzhugh says.

Today, Arts Corps delivers art classes in a variety of disciplines to 2,400 King County youth, from age 3 to 19. The programming includes African drumming, audio recording, spoken word, hip-hop, ballet, painting and theatre classes -- at no charge to the kids. Currently, Arts Corps provides classes in more than 30 locations, offering more than 50 classes per quarter.

Fitzhugh says the lack of art education at the elementary-school level is devastating. "That's when kids should be doing all these art forms all the time," she says. "Developmentally, that's one of the best opportunities to be working the brain on a variety of levels." Fitzhugh remains frustrated by the teaching-to-the-test climate and how it serves kids. She says, "There is no shortage of good data that points to the value of arts learning for a zillion reasons." One of those critical values, she says, is self-understanding, helping kids know who they are and developing their strengths.

Just as other programs want to give kids a voice, Arts Corps wants to help them make their mark -- with involvement from mom and dad. At a fundraising auction of student work, Fitzhugh said, "The ultimate goal is having parents bring creativity back into public education." After all, she adds, parents are the true arts advocates. "A lot of people from the outside can push and pull, but things won't change until the constituency -- the parents -- demand it."

Michelle Feder writes about a wide variety of subjects and has 4- and 1-year-old sons.


  • Arts Corps
    A non-profit youth development program that partners with schools and community organizations to bring free arts classes to low-income youth. There are several ways that you can get involved with Arts Corps. Volunteers are needed to help in the classroom, at Arts Corps' headquarters, or at events. Donors are needed to contribute to the kids' classes through financial or in-kind contributions.
  • Washington State Arts Commission
  • WSAC Arts in Education Program
  • Arts Impact
    Empowers K-5 classroom teachers to become competent and confident teachers of visual and performing arts. Teachers learn to successfully guide students in arts learning that meets the Washington State Essential Academic Learning Requirements in the Arts.
  • ArtsEdge
    Resources to help educators teach the arts.
  • Arts Education Partnership
    For news of the Arts Education Partnership and to download their most recent publication, Critical Links, which summaries 62 research studies that examine the effects of arts learning on students' social and academic skills.
  • ArtsEd Washington
    Also known as the Washington Alliance for Arts Education, has a new strategic plan and website. Learn about their Principals' Workshop, the ArtsTime Conference, and becoming an ArtsEd Washington member.
  • Arts Recognition and Talent Search
    Awards for distinguished arts teachers and student scholarships.
  • Emerald City Jazz Ensemble
    A multigenerational group of musicians from age 8 to 85. John Yasutake, 206-725-7672 and Michael Yasutake 206-725-7348
  • Leschi Music Partnership
    Garfield students teach Leschi Elementary School students how to read music and tutor them in playing their instruments. For more information and volunteer opportunities, contact Marnie O'Sullivan, or 206-329-2931, or Scott Gelband, 206-409-2535.


Originally published in the February, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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