Monday, May 26, 2014

Frustrations with dance education advocacy

Once again, it's been too long since I've written here — partially because such a difficult year at my school has just not been very pleasant to write about; but also in large part because I spend so much time searching for a position in a school where a dance program might be more viable, it has left little time for writing… So, one thing I have written about lately (in an article for the CDEA newsletter) is my long-term frustrations with attempting to bring dance to schools without it, and I thought it would be appropriate here as well…

I have been in public education for 17 years. Most of those years (aside from the seven I taught at EOSA) I have spent much time and energy advocating for dance education in schools which have no dance programs. Unfortunately, I feel as if I’ve been beating my head against the same wall for all those years – there are so many schools which boast comprehensive, award-winning music, visual art, and theater programs, but offer no dance at all. A few examples: one Bay Area high school offers seven different drama courses, from Beginning Drama through Stagecraft to Directing; eight music courses, including three levels of Band, two levels of Percussion, Jazz Ensemble, Concert Choir, and String Orchestra; and sixteen visual arts courses encompassing various levels of ceramics, drawing & painting, photography, and design — but no dance (except as one unit in Core PE)! That school's district, encompassing five large high schools, offers no dance at all among the fifty-two VAPA courses in the district course catalog (but does include Dance among eight requirements of one PE course). One well-regarded private school, in its promotional materials, boasts "every student involved in esteemed performing and visual arts and music programs" – but includes no dance in the curriculum.

I've always tried to emphasize that the state content standards specify four arts disciplines, while so many schools only offer two or three; that dance is the only subject which combines an arts discipline with physical activity; as well as critical thinking, spatial thinking, problem-solving, college-readiness (viz. the CSU/UC "g" requirement), etc. Over the years, I've been told "we're a small school, we don't have room in the schedule for luxuries like dance" or "we have so many arts courses already," or “we value the arts here, but we prioritize what we presently have…”

One bay area school district recently completed an assessment of all arts programs, and found that middle school dance was a huge gap — while many of the elementary schools have dance programs through arts providers or in-house teachers, and the one large high school has an excellent and comprehensive dance program, there is no dance at all in any of three middle schools. I met and brainstormed with the district arts coordinator, and we agreed that an itinerant teacher shared among all three middle schools could make it more feasible for any school to rebuild a program from just one or two classes. Unfortunately, none of the three principals was able to find room in the budget for even one dance class – so middle school dance will continue to be a huge gap.

Another large public high school recently completed new PE and performing arts buildings including a dance studio, but found no room in the budget for a dance specialist – so a PE generalist with no dance background or experience (but a specialty in team sports) was assigned to teach two sections of Dance! I assisted her with curriculum ideas this year and guest-taught one class per month, and had high hopes for helping to expand the program (with a "real" dance teacher) next year. But though the department had been optimistic that increased enrollment could warrant adding a dance specialist, the district decided that the school should host JROTC instead — so the dance classes will be taught by a non-dance teacher for another year.

This is, of course, not new: years ago, I found various schools which were on the cusp of adding dance to the curriculum, but at which all efforts failed. The VAPA department chair at one high school was certain of new arts classes for the next school year – “the arts pathway is going to be a reality and dance classes will begin in the fall.” By the next spring, those plans had withered away due to a budget crisis – and ten years later, that school still has no dance in the curriculum. Another VAPA chair urged me to contact the principal, (“I would love it if we could get a dance program going”) – but the principal never responded, and the program never came about.

I have also advocated for dance education at various "independent" schools — so many of which boast their fabulous arts programs but have no dance at all. Many seemed at first to have excellent potential, but after years of messages back and forth, those prospects faded away.

One private K-8 school advertises its emphasis on critical thinking and project-based learning (such a great fit for creative dance program!). I contacted the associate head of the school and got a prompt response asking for a phone meeting. In the phone meeting, I described a well-planned creative dance program, and he wrote about it in his school blog: “rather than force students to simply learn steps or routines, Avilee teaches them deeper concepts such as line, shape, path, range, level, tempo, rhythm, and weight... Clearly this is not the unit on square dancing we all experienced in our own educations! This conversation made me excited to continue to look at the possibilities around adding dance to our program...” However, after the idea was brought to the school governance committee, eventually it came to “maybe you could talk to our after-school coordinator,” and then even that possibility evaporated.

I likewise kept in contact with a small private high school in the east bay, where a colleague was the VAPA chair. After some dialogue, I was told that the academic dean had “expressed that there may be interest as well as need for beginning a dance program next year.” The dean contacted me about setting up a meeting in the summer, but my message offering possible dates was met with no response… until the fall, when one more contact generated a brush-off: “I don’t foresee us needing a dance program in the near future, our current arts program meets our needs...”

These are, again, just a few examples of advocacy failing to make a dent in the scarcity of dance programs in this state. In California, only 14% of elementary schools, 10% of middle schools, and 34% of high schools offer standards-based courses in dance (according to the Unfinished Canvas report); and only 0.28% of California students are enrolled in a dance course (according to DOE statistics)! Bringing a new program into a school is an incredibly difficult endeavor, and in so many cases, even with an initial positive response, following through to getting a new program accepted and running can seem nearly impossible. It is hard not to get completely discouraged...

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