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After recession cuts, LAUSD reconnects with community art groups

In this file photo, students warm up in a mariachi class at Hamilton High School.
In this file photo, students warm up in a mariachi class at Hamilton High School.
Susanica Tam for KPCC

Los Angeles Unified's arts education leaders took steps to renew long-dormant community partnerships with arts organizations Wednesday, part of an effort to revitalize arts education in the nation’s second largest school district. 

At the Los Angeles Cathedral in downtown L.A., the district's new arts ed director, Rory Pullens, held his first meeting with community arts organizations. More than 100 people representing several dozen groups attended the event.

Pullens outlined the district's arts plans and how community partners can help boost the arts for students.

“Guess what," Pullens said, getting a round of applause with cheers of support from some of the attendees. "We're back." 

RELATED: LAUSD decision ushers in new source of funding for arts education

Pullens lauded the district's recent announcement clearing the way for arts funding for low-income students, and pointed to new allocations this year that helped some of the district's schools purchase items like art supplies.

He also said the district is working on a school survey to create an arts equity index that will change the way the district allocates arts funds. The index would measure how well schools are providing arts instruction and arts access to students. Originally planned for release last year, the index is now expected next month.

But Pullens also painted a grim picture of the district’s current arts offerings. He said about a third of the district's middle schools currently offer little or no exposure to the arts. Some of the district’s students can go through both elementary and middle school without taking a single arts class, he said. Because of gaps in arts instruction, students who start learning an instrument in elementary school, for example, might not have classes to continue music study in their middle or high schools.

Pullens further talked about widespread budget problems, but took district leaders to task for failing to restore arts funding to the budget as the recession eased.

He said the arts education branch is still facing a deficit. Superintendent Ramon Cortines told reporters recently that the district as a whole is looking at a $160 million shortfall heading into the 2015-2016 school  year.

Despite the mixed funding news, for many in attendance, the meeting marked a positive shift in the district's arts strategy. Some groups currently serve as partners with the district, but the gathering was the first major effort in several years to reach out to organizations with the aim of restoring arts in the schools.

Jay McAdams, the executive director of 24th Street Theatre, said he remembered a few years back when the district emailed a cease-and-desist letter calling for an end to all arts partnership programs. He saw Wednesday's meeting as a major turnaround. 

"This is just a real breath of fresh air. There’s hope, there’s hope for first time in a long time for arts," he said.