By Trena Noval, Louise Music, and Aaron Ableman

The Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) is a statewide and national leader for innovative, research-based, and arts-centered integrated learning practices, programs, and advocacy. Through the Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership of the Bay Area, ACOE partners with the Alameda County Arts Commission to mobilize our 18 school districts, higher education, business leaders, funders, parents, students, and community members around the arts as an essential part of a high quality education and a key equity issue.

Over the past five years, many key leaders in the Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership of the Bay Area participated in task forces convened by Malissa Shriver, Executive Director of Turnaround Arts: California, for the development of California’s Education Blueprint, and we have supported national convenings and professional learning for the national Turnaround Arts program.

In addition, over the last three years, ACOE has supported two Turnaround Arts: California partner schools in the Bay Area region — Burbank Elementary in Hayward, CA, and Fremont/Lopez Elementary in Stockton, CA — with in-depth professional learning through our Integrated Learning Specialist Program (ILSP) and inspirational movement building through our annual regional institute Inventing Our Future. As a result, last spring ACOE was approached by Turnaround Arts: California to take on a formal role as a Regional Coach Pilot Program (RCPP) partner for the, now, four Turnaround Arts: California partner schools in the Bay Area region.

Through the strategic coaching of ACOE’s regional coaches, Trena Noval and Aaron Ableman, Turnaround Arts: California principals and Arts Leadership Teams (ALTs) are supported in assessing their progress towards goals outlined in each school’s Strategic Arts Plan. Through reflective practices and strategic questioning, school leaders are encouraged to think systematically and intentionally about the best arts partners and teaching artists to meet the needs of the entire school community.

Arts learning strategies are building pride and confidence for students and school communities through the development and presentation of skills and artistic practices that are shared through school-wide musicals and colorful, vivid representations of student learning on the walls of the school corridors. Students have multiple opportunities to work with others and express their ideas for real audiences, further inviting them to do their very best work. Teachers are being inspired by the work of their colleagues, and the isolation of the closed classroom door is being broken down.

As more teachers share their new pedagogical practices — developed through Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) trainings and partnerships with the San Francisco Opera, Youth Speaks and the Integrated Learning Specialist Program — a collegial exchange of creative ideas is taking root and teachers are inspiring each other through collaboration and elevated professional practice. At a time when communities in these schools are challenged by diminishing public education budgets and political realities that threaten family security, the arts are being appreciated as a tool that brings students, teachers, and families together across differences and builds a shared sense of purpose and belonging.

ACOE provides regional coaching at four Turnaround Arts: California partner schools: Meadow Homes Elementary, Costaño School, Burbank Elementary, and Fremont/Lopez Elementary. Given the unique qualities of each school environment, we would like to celebrate the following events and projects that have supported school-wide transformation through the arts:

Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord, CA, has been implementing VTS as a strategy to deepen student learning and teacher classroom practice. According to principal Sandy Wilbanks:

VTS has helped our English Language Learners to open up and share freely without being made fun of. Whether it’s in the sciences or humanities, the VTS observation technique has expanded our teachers’ connection to student understanding across content areas and improved comprehension in amazing and unexpected ways. The community art exhibits we offer our families is a great example of this work in action!

At Burbank Elementary in Hayward, CA, we have seen the transformational process through the production of the school’s musical. ACOE brought in Michael Orlinsky, a vocalist and teaching artist from SF Opera, to support the ALT in teaching and preparing students to perform the musical The Lion King. Michael shared:

Working as the Vocal Director for this production was a blast! The students are incredibly talented and passionate about theater. The biggest challenge that we had was with the “Villager” chorus. Not only did they have the most music to memorize, but they also had to learn the words that were in Zulu! Beyond that, the melody and rhythms were the most complex of the musical – then, to throw on the choreography! Despite all of these layers of complexity, the students performed incredibly well!

All things considered, the production process allowed students to learn a new craft, apply it creatively, and share it with the school community in a public display of their growth and transformation. Michael worked closely with ALT Lead and 4th grade teacher Kristen Nevarez on the musical. Kristen told us about their collaborative process:

Having the privilege of collaborating and working with Michael Orlinsky, a teaching artist, was phenomenal. Most of the cast had never heard an opera singer live, and they were blown away when they heard Mr. Orlinsky sing — they immediately begged for his autograph! Over a month before our show, we were able to have a full run through where we put the singing, acting, and dancing all together. Afterwards, Michael, our acting coach, and I sat down together and discussed all aspects of the show including choreography, acting, spacing, stage presence, and entering and exiting the stage. With this being only my second musical, I was able to get expert advice from Michael on how we can make small changes to improve the show. One important lesson I learned is to keep the choreography simple during solos and small groups so that vocals can be heard clearly. Michael inspired the cast to follow their dreams and showed them that with hard work and dedication they can make a profession as an artist.

In April, the students at Fremont/Lopez Elementary were both thrilled and well-prepared to meet musical icon and Turnaround Artist mentor Smokey Robinson when he visited their school campus. Mr. Robinson was greeted by a 4th grade class performing their rendition of the school’s Bulldog Pledge which all students recite and strive to live by on a daily basis. This welcome was followed by multiple performances created especially for Mr. Robinson. The Jazz Band, Dance Troupe, Show Choir, and Mariachi Los Toritos all showcased the talents they have developed through arts-centered practice that has become central to students’ learning over the past three years as a Turnaround Arts: California partner school. Students at Fremont/Lopez Elementary participate in arts learning every day through a leveled pathway program. 5th-8th grade students practice the art discipline of their choice, while primary students participate in a variety of art disciplines throughout the year. In addition, test scores continue to increase and English language learner fluency reclassifications are the highest they have been, with 72 students reclassified this year. The school looks forward to what the future holds as they move into the 4th year of the program.

Fremont/Lopez Elementary has also created whole school transformation by taking an in-depth approach to teaching and leading in the arts. Their entire ALT team has gone through our ILSP courses and completed Integrated Learning certification. Last summer, Principal Martinez brought the ILSP team out to Stockton for this whole staff to complete Course A on Art Integrated Learning Strategies. This June, we will be heading back to Stockton for a week to engage the Fremont/Lopez Elementary staff in Course B on Ongoing Assessment Strategies and Applications: Making Learning Visible, Studio Habits of Mind, Rubrics, and Portfolios. This work is evident when you walk through the halls of Fremont/Lopez Elementary — you can see examples of Making Learning Visible everywhere and you can observe students using metacognitive strategies to articulate their learning and share their process for understanding with their teachers and peers! As Principal Martinez says:

Our school is constantly moving forward. Suspension rates are down by 60% from three years ago, while student engagement and performances are at a high. Our students have purpose now.

This is a real testament to the ways in which the arts can affect change in any school community.

A group of teachers from Costaño School in East Palo Alto, CA, have been attending ACOE’s Integrated Learning Specialist program to deepen their understanding of art-centered strategies and approaches to using integrated learning for transformational change at their site. ALT Lead and Visual Arts teacher Angela Karamian talks about how the ILSP professional development has changed her classroom practice:

As a visual arts educator the ILSP program Course A on Strategies and Resources for Arts Integration have added so much value to my practice. The course taught me about the Studio Habits of Mind (SHoM), which has opened up a new way that I evaluate my students learning and how they see themselves as learners. Through SHoM, students are able to understand exactly how artists think and make decisions during the art-making process. SHoM is valuable to academic teachers as well because it is easily transferable to other disciplines outside of art.

In June, Angela and members of Costaño School’s ALT will take Course B on Ongoing Assessment Strategies and Applications through arts-centered approaches. They are looking forward to deepening their understanding through this process.