The Whole Picture: Arts Reside in Riverside Schools

by Susan J. Rainey

As a longtime public school educator, I have spent a lot of time in classrooms where I have delivered and observed hundreds of lessons. Yet one of the most powerful lessons I’ve ever seen took place in a theater and the teacher was a high school drama student.

In less than half an hour, this young man told the entire story of the civil rights movement by portraying characters from the era. With grace and confidence, he moved from the role of a drunken man jailed alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to that of King himself to a civil rights worker listening to the radio announcement of King’s assassination. The audience of teachers, administrators and students was mesmerized and engaged as they watched this well-choreographed dance of art and history.

The young man who gave that performance, Ryan Williams-French, went on to win first place at the National History Day competition. And he reinforced for me something I always have known: The arts are an essential part of a complete education.

A Rear Seat
Research shows that the arts help students develop skills that will help them to be successful in school and later in life. Through the arts, students learn discipline and teamwork. They expand their knowledge of every subject area, from language arts to math and science. They also build self-esteem.

With all of these factors in play, we know that a solid, standards-based arts education needs to be available to every student at every grade level and from every socioeconomic level.

Yet in our schools, the arts have taken a seat at the back of the classroom in recent years as educators have had to shift their focus to improving test scores and helping students to meet or exceed ever-more stringent academic standards.

This dilemma is outlined in the SRI International report “An Unfinished Canvas.” Among other things, the study found that although California has arts education policies in place, only one in 10 schools has a course of study that reflects those policies. The California Arts Education Strategic Task Force, of which I am a member, has been working to find solutions to this paradox.

The task force developed an action plan designed to help districts throughout the state integrate arts education into their curriculum and wisely use new funding for the arts. That funding includes $105 million in ongoing funding for the arts in our state and a one-time $500 million grant that can be used for arts, music or physical education supplies and professional development.

The task force has recommended:

  • Creating a statewide professional development program;
  • Expanding professional development opportunities for teachers;
  • Directing districts to incorporate the arts into their standards and benchmarks;
  • Supporting the development of arts curricula;
  • Increasing public awareness of the arts in public schools; and
  • Encouraging district assessment of the arts.

Integrated Planning
These are lofty goals but not impossible to achieve. In the Riverside Unified School District, which serves approximately 44,000 students in Southern California, we already have begun efforts to bring the arts into our classrooms.

We recently hired a visual and performing arts specialist and developed our own district arts education task force. This task force includes teachers, administrators and members of our city’s arts community. The director of our local art museum, a representative from the philharmonic and professors from the University of California, Riverside, are members of this group. All see the important impact that the arts have not only on our children but in our community and world.

This group has identified key areas that must be addressed so that we can start implementing uniform arts education standards for all K-12 students.

The task force found that while we had many excellent arts programs in place, there was not an adopted arts curriculum at each grade level and that many arts activities, particularly at the elementary level, usually occurred as extracurricular activities with no clear educational aim or expected outcome.

Group members agreed that the arts must be incorporated into our standards and benchmarks to allow for greater continuity from the elementary through the middle and high school levels of instruction. Task force members identified elementary school as the place where increased arts instruction will have the biggest impact.

We are developing a comprehensive arts education plan, to be presented to our board of education this spring, which will guide our district as we work to ensure that every student gets the most meaningful arts education possible.

We know from experience that a solid plan is important in helping us to realize the best outcome possible. We have seen this with the Riverside Unified School District Technology Plan, first adopted in 2001. This plan has helped us to realize astounding results. We have integrated state-of-the art technology into more than 600 classrooms. Last fall we opened the Riverside Virtual School.

We can do the same with the arts and make the ideal of a well-rounded education for all students a reality. Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

It is our job as educators to make sure that we nurture a love of art and beauty in our students that will last a lifetime so that art will remain integral in their lives, even after they grow up. This is an essential step as we seek to shape our students into well-rounded, thoughtful individuals who are making history, not just reciting it.

Susan Rainey is superintendent of the Riverside Unified School District in Riverside, Calif., and a member of the California Arts Education Strategic Task Force. E-mail: