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Keeping Students Connected to the Arts Through Linked Learning

March 23, 2021

This month, many are reflecting on the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns, school closures, and disruptions to our culture and economy. As we consider the year our students and communities have endured, we cannot ignore the influence the arts have had on this past year in particular. “If we look at how society responded to COVID-19, we relied on creative thinkers…graphic design was pivotal in communicating how far to stand apart, how to wear a mask properly, how to be safe in multiple languages,” reflected Daniel Spinka, CTE Coach at Fashion, Art, and Design Academy (FADA) at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland USD. Many of us turned to television, movies, books, music, and creative projects to pass the time while our communities were in safer at home protocols.

As schools transitioned to distance learning, Linked Learning pathways around the country came up with creative, innovative solutions to ensure students continued to receive high-quality arts education. Linked Learning is a proven approach to education that engages youth, transforms systems, and advances equity through rigorous academics, career-technical education, work-based learning, and comprehensive student supports. Linked Learning keeps students connected to real, relevant college and career preparation with small cohorts, industry partners and mentors, collaboration with postsecondary institutions, and authentic engagement with the local community. Students in Linked Learning pathways earn more high school credits, graduate at increased rates, and enroll in college at higher rates than their peers in traditional high schools. These results are particularly striking given that Linked Learning pathways overwhelmingly serve students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

The arts are the driver of equity in many Linked Learning pathways. At Media, Art, Design, and Entrepreneurship (MADE) for Social Justice, a pathway at Brighton High School in Boston Public Schools, students from across the city can enroll in the pathway without any admissions or audition processes. “A lot of our students, because they’re English Language Learners, because they may have special education needs, [an audition school] is not an option for them,” explained Instructional Coach Karen Coyle Aylward. “We wanted to provide an alternative to that: a regular comprehensive high school for students who might be interested in pursuing the arts, getting more information and exposure to the arts.” Across the country in Los Angeles USD, students at Los Angeles High School for the Arts at the RFK Community Schools employs a similar model of open enrollment for all students, regardless of arts proficiency or background. Principal Susan Canjura believes this allows for students who may have historically been left out of the arts an opportunity to thrive: “One of the students that was a finalist in the August Wilson Monologue Competition this year is an English Learner who came here speaking little English and was in our English Language Development program. And then through our pathway, he had a lot more opportunities to develop literacy skills through the arts. And here he is, one of the top twelve students in Los Angeles performing in the August Wilson finals. Maybe in another school, he might not have had that opportunity.”

With COVID-19 disproportionately impacting students and families from historically marginalized communities, the arts became a vital part of keeping students linked to high-quality academic and career learning opportunities during distance learning. Educators and school leaders worked tirelessly to put together art kits so students could engage in real, relevant arts curricula at home. Technical theater students at Los Angeles High School for the Arts received sewing machines and basic dress forms so they could continue costume development work. Students in the Digital Media Arts pathway at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino City USD took home iPad Pros and MacBook Pros for graphic design and film courses. At FADA in Oakland USD, design teacher Alicia Arnold collaborated with the district’s IT department to set up remote servers on campus that students could access via Chromebook to run the Adobe Creative suite from home.

Access to technology was just the beginning. Pathways collaborated to ensure students continued to have access to the types of integrated projects and performance opportunities they would typically have on campus. In Porterville USD, Academy of Performing Arts students at Harmony Magnet are teaming up to bring performances to life. Graphic arts students are working to compile individual performances from the band and orchestra students to create the illusion of an ensemble. Graphic arts teacher Meghan Berry explained how her students leaned into this challenge unique to the distance learning setting: “Mr. Smith, the orchestra director, wanted something I hadn’t taught my students yet, he wanted all the students’ face to be gridded in the video. My students were so excited, they researched it and figured it out themselves.” While many art teachers face an added challenge of not being able to see students and their work in person, Linked Learning students and teachers alike are embracing the challenge and fostering independent learning.

In East Los Angeles, students at the East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy at Torres High School also brought performance to life not just in the pathway, but for their community. Every year, the school performs what principal Carolyn McKnight described as “our East LA version of the Nutcracker” every winter. Not wanting to let COVID-19 and distance learning spoil their tradition, the pathway worked to create a virtual performance for the community to enjoy. “There was still a story…it’s a girl in her living room and a girl in her driveway as the mouse queen and the Nutcracker, soldiers and the Plum Fairies in their own way, in the way that we can,” she explained.

As schools and communities begin the journey towards reopening, it is essential we center the arts in these reopening plans. “I think that we’re going to be processing the whole quarantine, the whole pandemic for a while,” Alex Martinez, theatre tech assistant at Los Angeles High School for the Arts pointed out. As students, and educators, are processing the past year, the arts can serve as a vehicle for healing. “We really need to emphasize social-emotional learning,” Karen Coyle Aylward said. “The arts are a great tool for that, to give young people a chance for self-expression.”

“This is going to be, to me, a three to five-year period of recovery for students from the trauma of the past year and a half,” reflected Carolyn McKnight. “And so, I think the arts need to be at the center of that recovery plan, because it needs to be a revitalization plan, not just recovery. We need to become vital again and the arts are going to be the way we do that.”