Standing before a large dance studio mirror, Dana Budd demonstrates a simple move to 90 students at Bauer-Speck Elementary School.
“Step, clap! Step, clap!” she yells, shuffling from side to side and clapping after each side step. Then she queues up “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and repeats, this time with the entire class following along.
Some of the students are more graceful than others, but all of them participate.
“I just think dance is a great outlet for kids,” Budd says after the school’s first day of dance classes. “I think the research has shown that movement helps stimulate the brain and gives them a creative outlet.”
Amid statewide financial woes, five years ago, the Paso Robles Unified School District was reeling in the throes of a budget crisis, mailing pink slips to teachers and cutting sports and arts programs. While test scores improved during that time, the district suffered image problems that contributed to decreased enrollment.
But now, under Superintendent Chris Williams, the district is working to re-build. And Williams hopes its new arts initiative — mandating arts instruction for all elementary school students — will help afford the district a new reputation.
It’s part of the district’s plan to re-brand itself.
“We’d obviously been losing enrollment in our district for eight years consecutively,” said Williams, who was hired as superintendent in the summer of 2014 after Kathleen McNamara retired. “Our budget has been upside down. But this is the first year, from September to December, we’re going from a negative certification to a positive one.”
In 2011, the district issued itself a negative certification, meaning it wasn’t sure it would have the 1-percent reserve fund required by the state at the end of the school year. As a result, it faced a state takeover.
Under McNamara, the district upgraded to a “qualified” certification in 2013. While the district was making a financial comeback, it came with consequences — years of layoffs, furloughs and program cuts — that hampered staff morale and community perception.
Today, a healthier state budget helps with funding. But the district has also finally seen an increase in enrollment — up more than 200 students this year — which adds dollars. And, Williams said, the district has become more efficient with its money.
A $500,000 legal budget, for example, has almost been completely eliminated.
That savings, and a $2.5 million grant, has allowed the district to add more in the way of arts. If the district can add more appealing classes, Williams said, it will gain, not lose, students.
“I think when you get the excitement going about the programs and the right people in place, kids will want to be part of something special,” Williams said.
Arts in every school
Despite past cuts, the high school has maintained a good arts program, said Eileen Higgins, specialist for the district’s visual and performing arts (VAPA) program.
“What we noticed is that we weren’t having those experiences for students in the elementary level, and our high school teachers were noticing that kids were coming in with a lesser skill set,” Higgins said.
While some elementary teachers took the initiative to add arts instruction, it wasn’t mandatory, meaning some students had arts and some didn’t. Now arts classes are required and structured.
Beginning this year, all elementary students are required to have instruction in dance, music, visual arts and theater. To make that possible, art studios were added to every elementary school, each school will now have a band, musical instruments were purchased and professional artists were hired.
Budd, for example, has danced professionally with the State Street Ballet Company in Santa Barbara and has studied with the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre in New York.
The large classes she had on the first week of school will eventually be split among two other teachers.
Studying dance allows kids to express themselves with movement, building confidence, Budd said.
“I think the more hours I spent in the studio, the better all-around student I was too because it gave me a drive in something I wanted to be successful in,” she said. “And to be a successful dancer, I knew I had to do well in school or my parents weren’t going to let me go to dance class.”
Having arts will encourage students to take risks, Higgins said, and teach them to accept constructive criticism.
“You are constantly dealing with the idea of critique,” she said. “People are looking at what you do and passing judgment on what you do.”
‘We want to be special’
While the initiative treats arts as core classes, they are also connected to other courses. So teachers will collaborate. As an example, Higgins said, music lessons could involve songs related to the Gold Rush, which would be covered in social studies.
“We’re not looking at it as a separate activity,” Higgins said. “It is part of their core instruction, which means it relates to what’s going on in their classroom.”
This year the district will have a full-time public information officer, who will help promote changes in the schools. That branding, Williams said, reflects a culture shift that he hopes will establish Paso Robles Unified as a high-performing district in many areas.
Williams, a former linebacker at Fresno State, has a competitive spirit. And he doesn’t think the district’s past should limit its future.
“We want to be special,” he said. “We don’t want to make excuses about why we can’t.”