In a letter posted on its website and sent to supporters of the arts community on Thursday (April 7), The Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education (PAN) says it will be presenting a plea to the Vancouver School Board (VSB) for the restoration of the district's arts education programming, specific to elementary school students.
The letter and the planned discussion with the board are not in response to the VSB's recently proposed budget cuts, rather, they are pieces of a project that has been in the works for quite some time, according to PAN's founding member, Maggie Milne Martens.
“We have been working on arts advocacy for a year,” said Martens in a phone interview with the Straight on Friday afternoon.
In response to the cuts, Martens said that PAN rejects the budget in its entirety, not just cuts to arts. “We are in no way foregrounding the fine arts as the worst cut—it’s just an issue that has been an ongoing concern,” said Martens.
In the letter written to supporters one week after the budget was released, Martens says that the proposed budget would result in the loss of the district’s only fine arts staff person, “and therefore the loss of all arts enrichment programs – which for many children are their only exposure to the arts."
“[Speaking with the board] will give us an opportunity to say, ‘this will be the impact of losing the only fine arts connection that still remains in the district’,” said Martens.
The network was first started in the summer of 2015, after Martens identified a need for "some coordinated connection" between Vancouver schools.
She said that while many parents are involved in advocacy through parent advisory groups specific to their children's schools, many parents feel alone in their efforts, especially at schools that are located in lower-income areas of the city.
"A lot of us are involved in advocacy but we feel really isolated, and we're not realizing there is broader advocacy that could be happening," said Martens. There are currently active PAN representatives at 50 of Vancouver's 107 schools. The group meets on a monthly basis.
"Our primary goal is to work in solidarity, and also to recognize that the children that most need advocacy are usually the one's whose parents are least able to do it,” explained Martens.
To garner support from parents for their work, PAN will be presenting at the Vancouver School Board on April 13, to weigh in on Vancouver's dedication (or lack thereof) to the arts, pertaining specifically to elementary school programming. This will come ahead of a private roundtable think tank discussion about the importance of arts education with Vancouver arts experts and edcucators scheduled for May.
Despite being mandated in the B.C. Ministry of Educations's core curriculum, Martens said that there seems to be an assumption among some trustees that the arts are “a frill or an extra add-on” to education. She and members of PAN have held extensive discussion with former district principals, university professors, former teachers, and parents to find out where and when things went wrong, and why they need to be corrected.
“Many of the parents in PAN who grew up in Vancouver say they remember having a music room, a music teacher, and an art room. Artistic things were happening here, UBC was a magnet school for training arts educators, and it was a thriving district for the arts,” said Martens, an art educator and historian.
She says successive cutbacks, and the elimination of specialist teachers at both the district and school level “has basically created a vacuum”. More specifically, she says the board’s decision in 1992 to cut the positions of district principal for performing arts and district principal for visual arts was the beginning of the deprioritization of the arts.
“There are no specialist teachers, and generalist teachers are not trained in the arts, so there’s this huge loss of knowledge at this school level. It’s really hit and miss, and right now there is not comprehensive programming for that.”
Martens noted one particular reason that arts programming is so vital is because it allows children that might struggle with left-brained thinking to utilize their right-brain intelligence. “These children have no outlets—no drama, music, dance, or visual arts—and these things help us have an integrated experience of the world, so it is very much connected to mental health, too.”
While PAN’s letter and planned public meeting pertain specifically to Vancouver, Martens says it’s important to remember that the loss of arts education is a province-wide issue. She provided the Straight with the following statistics, which verified through the B.C. Minsitry of Education's website:
In a 2014/2015 government satisfaction survey given out to students in grade 3, 4, and 7, students were asked, “At school, are you learning about art?” At the grade 3 and 4 level, 42 percent of respondents said ‘yes’. At Grade 7, that number shrinks to 34 percent.
Martens invites parents, supporters, and advocates of the arts to attend the April 13 meeting at Committee III of the Vancouver School Board (1580 West Broadway) at 5 p.m.
Read the text of the letter below:
"Dear parents and supporters of the arts,
On April 13, in the midst of the largest budget deficit in decades, PAN (The Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education) will be presenting a plea for a renewed vision and commitment from the VSB to restoring a comprehensive arts education for all children in elementary Vancouver.
The arts are essential to the intellectual and social emotional development of young children and to the health of our future society. They are also part of the B.C. curriculum and central to the core competencies that form the underlying framework of the new curriculum (critical thinking, communication and cultural identity). Given that participation in the arts for children and youth is also shown to significantly improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and youth in academic success, employment and civic engagement, the loss of arts from schools is also a matter of social justice. All children need and deserve education in the arts to enable them to develop their full potential.
Over the last two decades, the arts have been decimated through loss of district staffing, specialist teachers and resources. Only half of elementary schools have music teachers, only 2 have art teachers. Arts programs are now largely sustained through private donation or PAC fundraising which creates inequalities of access between schools. This years budget will see the loss of the last fine arts district staff person and therefore the loss of all arts enrichment programs, which for many children are their only exposure to the arts. And finally, the few remaining arts spaces utilized in the district threaten to be eliminated under the ministry’s 95 percent capacity mandate to rationalize schools.
While we fully acknowledge the fiscal constraints of the district, we are asking trustees to commit to re-prioritizing arts education within Vancouver Schools as part of their five-year strategic plan. To this end we are hosting a roundtable think tank drawing on arts experts across educational and civic communities to begin a creative conversation and think of ways we can sustainably work together to ensure all Vancouver children have access to a quality arts education as part of their elementary schooling. We invite you to show your support for this motion by attending the public presentation at Committee III of the Vancouver School Board on April 13 (Wednesday) at 5 p.m. A large number of attendees gives a visible indication of parent priorities. There may also be opportunity to speak with trustees. If you are unable to attend we encourage you to write to the parent advocacy network and/or your trustee and express your concerns for the loss of the arts within Vancouver public schools."