On April 6, as part of a wide-ranging staff restructuring, Portland Public Schools (PPS) announced that it was cutting its one and only district-level position dedicated to the arts.
The post was that of K-12 arts curriculum specialist—AKA the Arts TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment)—whose responsibilities included coordinating professional development for arts teachers, developing a coherent district-wide arts curriculum, serving as a liaison to community organizations and artists that support school arts programs, and otherwise assisting classroom teachers of the visual and performing arts—including music.
To be fair, PPS eliminated fully half of the 22 curriculum and instruction TOSA positions it currently maintains in various content areas, but come next school year when the changes take effect, the arts will be the only discipline left without any district staff exclusively dedicated to it, its administrative cadre dropping in quantity from the loneliest number to no number at all. It is difficult to see this as a positive development.
PPS spokesperson Matt Shelby, under advisement from the district's directors of curriculum, addressed my questions about the elimination of an Arts TOSA by explaining that the new plan, "maintains curriculum specialists in the subjects that have implemented a common district curriculum. We are not currently implementing a common arts curriculum."
However, Shelby then went on to note that for the last five years the Arts TOSA had been developing a common district arts curriculum, ready for implementation at the end of this school year. Having spent time and money on developing an arts curriculum, wouldn't it make sense to have arts education experts on staff capable of stewarding its adoption and execution?
Many PPS teachers certainly think so. Take, for example, Grant High School Director of Vocal Music Kathryn Wagner-West: "Having a district arts curriculum adoption is impossible without a leader. Coordinating community outreach programs with our schools is impossible without a contact point. Trying to give equal access to arts programs to all district students K-12 is impossible without a person who can travel between schools to help share resources (isn't that fiscally responsible?)."
Portland's deep reserves of talented and community-minded musicians and artists are its greatest, and most under-utilized, educational resource. In my experience, Portland's musicians are not only willing, but eager, to give their expertise and time as volunteers to augment local public schools' music programs—the very programs where some of them first learned to play an instrument. But navigating the district's Byzantine bureaucracy can be challenging for an insider, let alone an outside arts specialist. To make it happen, they need an administrative liaison dedicated to the arts.
I have personally had the pleasure of helping to bring several community-driven music-related programs to PPS in recent years, and in each case the Arts TOSA was the key to making it happen. Without this position, I wonder who will steward the money the student-run Music in the Schools organization will raise at their annual benefit concert in June, which in years past has leveraged local bands like Menomena, the Thermals, and YACHT to raise thousands of dollars for PPS music programs?
Who will see through to implementation the advanced visual art portfolio class that prominent album art designers Carson Ellis and Dana Dart-McLean have been planning to volunteer to teach next year?
What will become of White Bird's education outreach program that brought top-tier dancers to 55 PPS classrooms?
Particularly when the economy is in the gutter and school districts are bound to face even more austere budgets, making use of the skills and services of the local arts community—often provided for free or funded by outside grants—is more important than ever. With the dissolution of the Arts TOSA position, Portland's arts community is losing its most accessible point of entry into the educational system, and I fear its students are consequently losing a great deal more.