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The Samohi orchestra practices during class. (photo by Byron Kennerly)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Through the years of budget headaches and funding cuts from the state to public education, threatening the continuation of certain services, at least one district program has continued to shine in the face of it all — the arts.

That success by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District was recognized in a new report released today about arts education in the county, finding that the organization is just one of six that exhibit four out of five known characteristics of a strong infrastructure for enriching students in visual and performing arts.

The 2008 Arts Education Performance Indicators Report by the L.A. County Arts Commission examines strides that have been made by 81 school districts, concluding that much progress has been made toward developing a sound infrastructure for sequential K-12 arts education since 2005.

SMMUSD is among the districts that have instituted most of the five indicators for a solid foundation in the arts, including adopting policies and plans, hiring a district-level arts coordinator, and keeping the ratio of students to credentialed arts teachers below 400-to-1. The one factor that the district — and most in the county — lacks is setting aside at least 5 percent of its total budget for arts education. The district spends about 3 percent of its budget on the arts and receives support from the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, which has an endowment of $1.5 million.

“The pendulum is finally swinging in the right direction for arts education,” Laura Zucker, the executive director for the Arts Commission, said. “This new report shows that K-12 arts education is the strongest that it’s been in a generation.”

The report was conducted as part of the county’s Arts for All initiative, which was adopted by the county Board of Supervisors in 2002 to provide every student in every school district quality sequential arts education.

The initiative encourages Arts for All districts to take a series of actions to build the foundation for a program, including adopting a policy and plan.

The problem before the initiative was the patchwork delivery system for arts education in which some students had access some of the time, Zucker said.

“What was happening in SMMUSD was very much a reflection of what was happening throughout the county, which was uneven delivery,” she said. “While there were wonderful things happening in Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, it was not consistently available to all students throughout the school district and that is one of the key changes that we’ve seen happen since (the district) has been participating in Arts for All.”

The district was one of the first five to adopt the initiative.

Tom Whaley, the coordinator of Visual & Performing Arts for the district, said that Arts for All has led to more grant funding opportunities, including one for $2 million from the Department of Education.

“It helps us look stronger for funding because (it says) we really have our ducks in a row,” he said.

One of the strongest attributes of the district’s program is music education for all students K-12. A recent study showed that while enrollment in the district has dropped over the past few years, participation in music has steadily increased.

But the district remains weak in the visual as well as some areas of the performing arts, including theater, Whaley said.

The district no longer has a theater program at Lincoln and John Adams middle schools, primarily because of funding issues.

To make up for shortfalls, the district partners with Santa Monica College, which offers guitar courses, as well as dance, mariachi and jazz band classes through its dual enrollment program at Santa Monica High School.

There is also the help that the district receives from the Education Foundation, which has supported the high school drama program and dance classes at the middle school.

“As a trend the arts are always the first to be cut, which is why our foundation decided we didn’t want that to happen and therefore do something pretty powerful and create the endowment so we could secure funding for the arts and not rely on state budget cuts,” Linda Gross, the executive director of the foundation, said.

Though funding always remains an obstacle for the arts, Zucker said that many of the Arts for All districts are moving ahead with their plans.

“The great unknown is what is going to happen with the state budget,” she said. “However we believe that Los Angeles County school districts are going to continue their commitment to arts education because such a strong foundation has been laid.”

melodyh@smdp.com