P.S. ARTS CEO Dr. Kristen Paglia was recently featured in the January 30th issue of VIEW Magazine’s “Giving” series. Check out what she had to say about the state of arts education in Los Angeles on page 12, and read her extended interview below.
Why do you think providing arts education to underserved public schools and communities is so important?
I’d have to turn in my arts education advocate card if I didn’t start with all the research that says participation in the arts increases students’ potential to be successful in school and their future careers. There are dozens of studies to confirm this, including a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report finding that students from low-income communities who participate in the arts earn higher grades and are more likely to attend and graduate from college. Boosting academic achievement is obviously very important, but from where I stand as a parent – and person – trying to navigate a world that seems to be getting increasingly dangerous and unpredictable, the most important reason to include the arts in education is that the arts move us to see and value our fellow human beings, the earth, and the unknown. This is the stuff trailblazers, innovators, and heroes are made of. I think the founder of the Arts in Education program at Harvard University, Dr. Jessica Hoffmann Davis, says it perfectly in her book, Why Our High Schools Need the Arts – Fighting Attrition with Interest and Relevance. She writes, “From imagination to social responsibility, the arts teach our children what it is to be human and enable them to experience their humanity in thought and action…”
Where do you see your program’s role within the greater Los Angeles community?
In short, P.S. ARTS’ role in the greater Los Angeles community is to make schools better. The most recent Otis Report on the Creative Economy finds that 1 in 7 jobs in Los Angeles County are in a creative industry, yet state budget cuts have resulted in the near elimination of the arts from LA public schools. Even with incremental increases in state funding for the arts in the last few years, the school district budgets are still well below what they have been (and need to be) to provide all children with equal access to quality arts instruction. Nonprofits like P.S. ARTS help fill the gap and ensure that Los Angeles’ most vulnerable children are getting the knowledge and tools they need to be successful in our creative economy. P.S. ARTS’ contribution to this endeavor is notable both because of the scope of our services and our commitment to overall public school reform. P.S. ARTS provides weekly dance, music, theater, and/or visual arts classes to 25,000 public school students during their regular school day for the entire school year. We do this for only $250 per child, which is about a third of the estimated cost for a large school district like LAUSD to provide the same level of service. P.S. ARTS also pairs accomplished artists with credentialed teachers to the professional benefit of both. A recent longitudinal study of our programs conducted by UCLA Professor Emeritus and Principal Investigator for the Centers for Research on Creativity Dr. James Catterall found that participation in P.S. ARTS’ programs “measurably helps prepare students for school and career success in the 21st Century by supporting their creative development and improving their ability to collaboratively solve complex problems.”
P.S. ARTS was created in response to significant education budget cuts — specifically to arts programs in California public schools — in the 1970s and 1980s. What has been the most significant change (positive or negative) in this arena since then?
Good progress has been made on a policy level toward restoring the arts to Los Angeles’ schools. Funding for the arts in LAUSD, for example, has increased by 40% in recent years. Still, the current $26.5 million arts budget is less than half what LAUSD Executive Director of the Arts Rory Pullens has speculated is needed to implement a strong district-wide arts program. Mr. Pullens has also commented on the advantages of partnering with organizations like P.S. ARTS to bridge the significant gap between the handful schools that meet state standards in the arts and the vast majority that do not. This year, LAUSD earmarked funding to supplement funds raised by vetted outside arts education providers, and I am very encouraged by this resource alliance venture. It is clear to me that strategic partnerships between highly regarded nonprofits and school districts present an attractive alternative to spreading public resources too thin and too far.
How did you become involved with P.S. ARTS?
Fate, I think. I double majored in Dance and Early Childhood Education in college. Artistically, I was very interested in the way humans use body language and other nonverbal cues to define relationships. It’s pretty niche, I know. I joined a dance company that integrated dancers with and without developmental disabilities, which led to pursuing a master’s degree in Dance Therapy and an internship as a rehabilitation therapist with incarcerated adults. At the time, California was facing a teacher shortage and offering something called an emergency credential for college graduates willing to work in severely underserved schools. I got one and was placed in a classroom of middle school students with moderate and severe disabilities. I quickly discovered that my most powerful and engaging teaching tool was my dance background. I felt like I was making a difference for these kids, but within nine months two of the students in my class had been victims of gang retaliation and one was dead. I knew then that I would learn whatever I needed to learn to be able to make things better for kids in these failing public schools. I kept teaching and earned a doctorate degree in human development, focusing my research on the benefits of dance education. I was looking for a position as a special education teacher or resource specialist in Los Angeles when I came across an opening for a Program Director at P.S. ARTS. I didn’t have any nonprofit experience at the time, but when I read the mission and considered the likelihood of finding a job that incorporated every one of my passions and skills the way this one does, I had to apply. That was nine years ago.
What achievements/advancements over the years have been the most meaningful to you?
I am most proud of our ability as an organization to establish and nurture partnerships. Collaboration has been the theme at P.S. ARTS for the past decade or more, including several large-scale partnerships with school districts and a successful merger with another Venice-based nonprofit, Inside Out Community Arts, in 2014. I was very fortunate to walk into a groundbreaking initiative funded by the Herb Alpert Foundation to provide the entire Lawndale Elementary School District (LESD) with an arts program. I had never worked this systemically or had the opportunity to lead a program that would have that kind of transformative impact. The goal was to build resource capacity in the district — both human and financial — to sustain a comprehensive fine arts program for every child in the district. Ten years later, every child in LESD receives weekly instruction in the visual and performing arts through P.S. ARTS funded by matching contributions from the school district and both philanthropic and corporate partners. In 2013, LESD Superintendent, Dr. Ellen Dougherty offered a powerful endorsement of the P.S. ARTS program stating, “Our students’ academic success is beginning to soar. This year, we surpassed the state goal for academic performance. Two of our schools won the Title I Academic Achievement Award, and I believe these accomplishments are directly correlated to students’ experiences in the arts.” Four other school districts have since joined what has become a major collaborative arts education initiative, TakePART, investing more than one million dollars annually and serving upwards of 7,500 students in the Wiseburn, Lennox, Hawthorne, and Centinela Valley school districts.
The challenges of a nonprofit are fraught with difficulty. What keeps you inspired when the moments and experiences aren’t so uplifting?
I spend a lot of time thinking about this. Not only from my own perspective, although I do have to remind myself of the “why” from time to time when I’m up to my eyeballs in red tape or duct tape depending on the crisis du jour, but from the perspective of our contributors who give their time, money, talents, and expertise to P.S. ARTS. From our Board of Trustees, chaired by Josh Tanzer, to our dedicated volunteers — these people blow me away. I constantly ask myself what keeps them coming back? I am going to preface this next thing by saying that I am a working mom and more of my time is spent watching animated movies than I’d really like to admit, especially in the early days of my career when my kids were little and I was trying to finish a dissertation and working full-time. I remember in a particularly low moment that involved the older one stuffing the younger one’s pajamas in the toilet to “see what would happen,” I overhead Disney’s Mr. Incredible say to a reporter, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved!” It resonated with me, because I’d felt like that before. I’ve felt like that a lot, but I keep getting back up for the fight, because the stakes are too high to quit. The community that supports P.S. ARTS keeps at it because they know if they don’t, kids lose. It is their commitment that continues to inspire me when things get hard.
What’s the coolest part about being in the Venice community?
Venice has always been a hub for artists, activists, innovation, and great food! This year over 40 restaurants, chefs, and supporters from the Venice community joined P.S. ARTS at our annual foodie-festival, Taste of Venice, for an afternoon of good eats and drinks in support of our cause. We believe that the arts have the power to engage students and create vibrant communities, and hosting this summer fundraiser that brings Venice’s culinary creatives and arts advocates together is such a clear (and delicious) example of the arts in action. I also love that our office is so close to some of our public school campuses as well as our new corporate partners. Google, one of our Taste of Venice sponsors, is right down the street, and as we speak Snapchat employees are volunteering in our Visual Arts class at Coeur D’Alene Ave. Elementary School. We feel so supported by our Venice community.
Is there anything exciting happening in the future that you can tell us about?
It has been a huge year for P.S. ARTS. Between our growth and the current political climate around the arts and public education, there is a rare, wide-open window of opportunity to advance our mission to improve children’s lives by helping to build strong schools through the arts. We launched a strategic planning process in September, and our trustees, staff, and extended community are dedicated to achieving the highest level of organizational stability and positive field impact possible. I am excited to announce a new partnership with the Culver City Unified School District (CCUSD) and Sony Entertainment that will provide school-wide visual arts education in three CCUSD elementary schools. We are adopting a similar collaborative approach in the Inglewood Unified School District, where students will receive weekly dance instruction through matched contributions from the Herb Alpert Foundation and district funds. We are looking to continue the trend of fruitful partnerships going forward, expanding our reach and serving our mission through communal efforts and resource sharing.