The other day there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a business philanthropist wanting to give money to San Francisco middle schools. Beyond tablets, and their respective ability for alternate ways to process learning, the SFUSD could not imagine uses for additional funds. This was incredible to me. We are a medium sized nonprofit and could at any moment identify entire program needs for gifts ranging from $5,000 to $5,000,000. “Knowing the need” is embedded in our mission statement and the continuing assessment that is part and parcel of our program planning and design. Is there something inherent in the size and bureaucratic set up of school districts that keeps vision so far away from finances? Are we at Luna more nimble because we are small? We work extensively in Oakland. I began to wonder if the Oakland Unified School District would be ready to receive such a generous offer.
I do not profess to understand anything about the inner workings or politics of school districts in general, or Oakland Unified School District specifically. All I know is my own organization’s experience as contract service provider over the past 11 years. We’ve been active in the district in lean times and less lean times, but mostly during the period of severe shifts caused by the teaching-to-the-test interpretation of No Child Left Behind. Despite the rather draconian policies and practices emerging throughout the nation, several visionary teachers and administrators in Oakland have seen the value of the arts to a child’s comprehensive education. For lots of reasons that have more to do with perception than evidence, dance is often the least likely art form to be included in program design; nonetheless, we’ve enjoyed building dance programs in key schools throughout the district. Our partnership with New Highland Academy has been most successful, due in large part to the consistent efforts of the principal, faculty and our organization to fund and deliver the program continually over time despite the whims of budget or trends that come down from the district or state department of education.
Our work at Grass Valley is new, but the relationship emerged from a series of unfortunate events that I fear is all too common in large, urban school districts. We were first approached in 2003 by a visionary principal at newly reorganized Tilden Elementary, a designated inclusion school. Tilden served children preK through second grade with and without disabilities; and the principal, teachers and therapist saw the value of dance to their students’ learning. For more than six years we worked to build a program that included weekly classes for students pre-K through 2nd grade, professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals, collaborative curriculum planning so that dance could be integrated into other academic subject matter, as well as offered as a discrete subject, and the first school performance assemblies with nationally known artists and dance companies. The stories of success were numerous. Children with autism learned to partner dance with peers, speak for the first time and increased their capacity to “self-sooth.” Two separate national conferences invited us to present the work at Tilden so that other professionals could learn strategies and be inspired. As we approached our 6th year, the principal was replaced with a principal who did not understand how “these kids” could learn “ballet” but at the insistence of the faculty allowed the program to continue anyway. That final year was grim because the district had decided to close the school site, relocate the families and use the building for district offices.
The close-knit group of teachers dispersed, but many of the families went on to attend Thurgood Marshall Elementary and one of the accompanying teachers asked us to build a program there. The principal at Marshall was supportive and strong and we began once again to build a sequence of dance learning (K-3 this time.) Because of our relationship with the Tilden teacher and her strong leadership skills, we clipped along quickly and, in only two years, four separate grade levels were receiving dance classes and teachers reported accompanying progress in language, expression, confidence and social interaction. Then, the district closed Marshall and relocated staff and families once again.
All four of our partner teachers at Marshall accompanied their families to Grass Valley Elementary where, with luck, another supportive principal encouraged the continuation of the dance program with the potential for building it out school-wide. Thus, this fall brings us to the second year at Grass Valley working with five teachers toward a scope-and-sequence of standards-based dance learning for all students. Imagine then our frustration when the district changed their contract process, resulting in a halt in services six weeks into the semester.
In the past, Oakland Unified School District had been notorious for its complicated contract process, resulting in artists and other contractors being paid late, sometimes as late as a year. Knowing this in advance, we quickly learned how to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, to be timely in our own response and to know the individuals who could nudge things along. We learned that, among other things, there was no district contract manager, unbelievable for a district that size so when they hired one three years ago, we were thrilled and things moved along swiftly in 2011-12 and 2012-13. This year, the district created an online system that has thrown everything into chaos. The administrative assistants at each school are now responsible for creating the online profiles and contracts and passing the process back and forth between a one-person tech support district contract person and their own office until all parts are satisfied and the contract can be sent for three separate district signatures, then a purchase order number can be issued and work can begin. Ultimately, this process might increase efficiency, but at present, the school personnel does not understand the process and there is a great deal of confusion, mis-communication and hurt feelings arising from people being expected to do a job without clear guidelines or training.
As a relationship-based organization, we pride ourselves in ending each year with an all-hands evaluation process and subsequent planning for the next year. Together, we are BUILDING a program and thus, continuity and progress is essential. By June of each prior year, new budgets are designed and new scopes of work for the upcoming year agreed upon. Luna faculty wants each child to receive the full 32 weeks of dance learning so we start right after Labor Day. This year was no different. We launched and taught weekly classes to over 600 children in 21 classes. Six weeks in, with no contract in sight, we have to pause, taking a break from service because technically, it isn’t prudent to work without a contract. This week, everyone is losing out. The school personnel doesn’t understand that in order to avoid the temporary “shut down” they needed to move things faster and figure out how to do so; the classroom teachers are left to figure out how to fill in the extra time with other curriculum; the children do not understand what happened to their dance classes and we at Luna have staff on payroll dismayed at doing administrative work while they wait to apply their craft. Our teachers have decades of experience teaching, performing and making dance. They are anxious to get back to doing what they do best.
In the context of a federal government shut down, this seems like a minor glitch—and we all know it is temporary and within a few weeks children will be creating and performing beautiful dance phrases that express their understanding of concepts, ideas, feelings and observations of the world around them. Yet, throughout the past 11 years, we’ve often felt like we were solely holding the continuity and progress of actualizing the district’s own Blueprint for Learning in Dance K-12. Today I wonder if Oakland would have an answer for Marc Benioff if he asked what they could do with a donation several million dollars?