Bringing Art Back to Public Schools & Keeping It There

Judith Garratt knows what it’s like to struggle to get kids the arts education they deserve in a public school system where funds are being cut left and right. Before joining LAUSD, Judith worked as a performer and teaching artist throughout the world and on TV and film. Now she serves as the K-12 Arts Specialist and is the Coordinator of Pre-Concert Activities for the LA Philharmonic’s Symphonies for Youth program.

She works closely with Rory Pullens, whose recent hire was a real coup for LAUSD – the lauded TED speaker and former head of school and chief executive at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., has already made some major strides in turning the tides in Los Angeles. His background in the arts is considerable. “All of these years of experience have given me insights into the internal workings and needs that arts educators and administrators grapple with in providing suitable arts education for their students,” he said.

I was lucky enough to attend some recent events in Los Angeles, which were facilitated by Pullens and Garratt. They showcased paintings and drawing by LAUSD students in the historical Los Angeles Public Library, and also screened several student films at the Let's Celebrate! District Wide Arts Festival, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in Beverly Hills, California, to an audience of actors, directors, cinephiles, students, and teachers.

Their work is fascinating, and I’m pleased to present this exclusive interview with Judith Garratt, which offers a glimpse inside the inner workings of what district leaders do to ensure that our children are nurtured with education in the arts.

In all your years of working to ensure children and young people have access to the arts through the public education system, please explain how things have changed, from say, ten years ago to now.

JG: The arts have always been a part of public education. However, the amount of arts provided is directly related to budget issues. When the economy is good and there is money, the arts increase, but are quick to be cut when the economy dips. We at LAUSD are working to ensure that this does not happen. We are making the arts an integral part of every department in the district. We are focusing on both discrete arts instruction and on arts integration to ensure that all students have access to the arts in some way.

With the advent of social media and a child's ease of getting whatever information they want – have you found that children are more predisposed to loving art and creating things, or is it just the opposite?

JG: Children are basically curious individuals. Technology has changed society’s way of communicating, but children still thrive on human connection, empathy, and creativity. That is what the arts bring to them.

All children can be creative. If they are encouraged to experiment and take risks, creativity will grow from that. Creativity is different for every individual, and children need to be aware when they are being creative. Teachers and parents need to encourage divergent thinking and creative play.

Some people say L.A. is devoid of class and culture . . . What’s your response to that?

JG: Los Angeles is a very diverse city and that diversity is reflected in the arts. There are major commercial venues as well as local neighborhood arts deeply rooted in a specific culture. Los Angeles arts institutions go out of their way to bring young people into them with free days, family events, school field trips, teen councils, and advisory committees. Some arts events are brought into the city from elsewhere and some are created here.

The film industry has a huge presence in LA, and studios are currently connecting to our LAUSD schools through an Adopt-a-School program whereby studios provide equipment and expertise to the schools.

What are some of the new programs you've implemented, and where do you see the L.A. Unified Arts Education Program heading in the next year or so?

JG: Rory is working on many new programs. The Adopt-a-School program of matching studios to schools with needs is fully operating in phase one. We are doing two district-wide multi-discipline arts festivals this spring.

We are providing a four-session professional development for teachers in arts integration three times throughout the year. Rory is also working on some benefit concerts. We are providing additional arts teachers in schools that have had limited arts classes in the past. We are launching a common experience where all students throughout the district will participate in the same arts experiences and share their reactions across the city. 

What would you say to parents who want to feed their children's creative impulses after the school day ends? What can parents do to help keep their kids' imaginations alive and growing?

JG: Parents can experience various arts activities with their children. It’s best to expose them to a variety of different types of arts when they are young so that they can make informed decisions about what they most enjoy as they mature.

If parents and children participate in the arts together, they can have a discussion on what they experienced and how they felt about it. It helps a child develop if the parent asks him or her what it specifically was about the experience that made him or her feel a certain way. At school, it’s called finding evidence to support your opinion. 

What is your school district’s attitude towards the arts, and how do you help develop an art education at home? Share your tips with us in the comments below!

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