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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 24th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 46 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 13, Issue 46

Picking up the slack

Local nonprofits collaborate to ensure that youth are exposed to and educated in art�


The carpeted floor of the portable classroom rumbled with the collective movement of nearly 30 Alice Shaw Elementary School fourth graders and their dance instructor. Nina Rippy was teaching the youngsters basic ballroom dance technique, playing swing music over a stereo, while the mass of legs stepped, kicked, and spun.

Dance instructor Nina Rippy has been teaching elementary school students through the Children’s Creative Project and the Orcutt Children’s Art Foundation for 10 years.

While most of the kids were still at cootie-fearing age, the boys and girls who were paired up were laughing and smiling, trying their best not to step on each other’s toes.

“When we do the ballroom,” Rippy told the Sun, “I talk to the boys and say, ‘Hey, this is important, especially if you want to get a date in a few years.’”

Once upon a time, classes like this were a standard part of core curriculum in public schools, but if you were to assume the same now, you would be wrong. Empty coffers, standardization, and a state-wide budget crisis have put the kibosh on most art classes in public schools.

While No Child Left Behind may have laid down a few provisions regarding the arts, dwindling budgets have made it virtually impossible to allocate federal money for arts programs in the state. Fortunately, local organizations have been collaborating and expanding to meet the need for arts education in the community.

“This class is funded by [the Orcutt Children’s Art Foundation],” said Alice Shaw principal Dr. J. J. Francoisse, “and unless we had such a program, we would not have these cultural experiences for our students.”

Thanks to organizations like OCAF, area elementary schools still enjoy instruction in the performing and visual arts.

The floor began to shake again as Rippy changed gears, showing the students the Mexican hat dance, complete with fast-paced kicks, claps, and, of course, a respectful bow to your partner.

Meeting a need

Rippy is just one of the many professional art instructors paid to teach in area classrooms, thanks to the Orcutt Children’s Art Foundation. The foundation provides teachers to schools in the Orcutt Union School District, teachers who are skilled professionals in performing and visual arts.

“Our whole purpose for existing is that we raise money to keep art in schools,” said OCAF Executive Director Hannah Rubalcava. “We fund for all grades, K through 6, to have professional art lessons each year, and we help pay for the junior high students to go to a PCPA show as a field trip, which for most kids at that age is their first exposure to live theater.”

OCAF also works to acquire grant money for Orcutt high schools. For the last few years, the foundation has acquired a grant from the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation.

“They have been giving between $20,000 and $30,000 for the high school arts program,” Rubalcava said, “and that is for everything from choir to photography and everything in between.”

Aside from big donations from other arts foundations, OCAF also takes donations from community members. Anyone who donates to the foundation can become a member. Members donate more than just cash though, Rubalcava explained.

Children’s Creative Project executive director Kathy Koury cofounded the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival, which happens annually in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. The Orcutt Children’s Arts Foundation started its own festival last year.

We have had artists who have donated supplies,” she said. “I can’t tell you how helpful that is. We have actually started classes based on donations of supplies that we received.”

Group art lessons are also a huge part of OCAF’s program. The Orcutt Art Academy was founded in 2004 to help bolster OCAF during the economic downturn. The program teaches arts after school, with all the monies made going back to OCAF and arts in schools. The Orcutt Art Academy is actually a collaboration between OCAF and the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s Children’s Creative Project.

The Children’s Creative Project, headed by Executive Director Kathy Koury, serves both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

“We started working in local schools in the county in 1974 with a handful of volunteer artists teaching after school,” Koury said. “Now we are in 66 schools with our resident artist program giving instruction during school.”

The Children’s Creative Project promotes the arts in three specific ways. First, the aforementioned resident artist program gets visual and performing artists in local schools regularly to teach arts to youth.

“We bring artists into the classroom with primarily elementary grade levels,” Koury said, “and that includes dance, theater, visual arts, and vocal music.”

The second way CCP keeps kids exposed to a diverse palette of art is through its touring artist program, which brings performing artists to local schools for assemblies. These artists could be a solo musician or a troupe, such as PCPA Theaterfest’s Arts and Outreach performers.

The touring artist program is best exemplified in the annual free concert that the Children’s Creative Project holds at the Arlington Theatre. About 4,000 county students are bussed to the Arlington to enjoy performances by renowned performing artists. This year will feature a concert by the African Children’s Choir of Uganda.

“We collaborate with UCSB Arts and Lectures and tie into wonderful world-renowned artists,” said Koury, “these touring artists provide multicultural experiences for students.”

The Children’s Creative Project will be bussing 4,000 county students to see the African Children’s Choir of Uganda perform live on Feb. 28.

Funds for these events are made possible from several grants, including Santa Barbara Bowl Education and Outreach and the Dreier Family Foundation. Also, the Children’s Creative Project raises funds at its two annual street painting festivals. The I Madonnari Street Painting Festival takes place in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo at each city’s respective mission. This year, the Santa Barbara festival is set for Memorial Day Weekend, May 25 through 27, and the San Luis Obispo festival is set for Sept. 7 through 8. Koury, who’s been with the Children’s Creative Project since it began, cofounded the street painting festival 26 years ago.

“We have about 300 artists of all ages that do the street painting,” Koury said. “They draw with chalk or pastels on the pavement in the plaza of the old mission in Santa Barbara and the mission at San Luis Obispo.”

Artists donate money to be a part of the festival, with larger squares requiring a larger donation. A featured artist is usually selected to paint the largest square with a local organization or business donating the money. The event also features fine food booths, arts and crafts vendors, live musical entertainment, and an area for kids to street paint for free.

“So the public gets to see these works created right before their eyes,” Koury said. “And in the early days [people]—and still newcomers to the festival—[would] become concerned, because the work won’t last. But that’s the whole point of the festival; it’s not about holding on to the finished product, it’s about the joy of creating and what’s involved in the creative process.”

The Orcutt Children’s Art Foundation was inspired by the I Madonnari Street Festival and started the Orcutt Street Painting Festival last year. The next event is slated for the last week of September in Old Town Orcutt.

“It’s very similar to the I Madonnari,” Rubalcava said. “[The Children’s Creative Project has] been helping us grow and learn the ropes. We were hoping just to break even last year, but we ended up making some money, so that was fantastic for people to come out and support local art and arts education.”

An essential extracurricular

 More and more studies are showing how an artistic education improves a student’s ability to learn, be involved, and be healthy. The California Arts Council conducted a study that found that young people who participated in the arts for at least nine hours a week were four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem, and four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair.

So how did such an essential part of education get left behind? Many people blame the No Child Left Behind Act for setting up a diminishing cycle. When less money is given to a school that suffers from bad test scores, funding is lowered for extracurricular programs such as the arts. If arts education helps make better learners, then logically students who have an art deficit won’t do as well on tests, thus lowering their school’s scores and punishing their budget, creating a veritable quicksand pit of problems.

“From what I understand, No Child Left Behind is the carrot and stick approach to funding,” said Craig Shafer, president of the Santa Maria Arts Council and head of publicity for PCPA Theaterfest, “but this teach-to-the-test mentality has really put art teachers out of work.”

The Santa Maria Arts Council, while doing its part to ensure public art projects and resources, aims a lot of its efforts every year toward young artists in the community.

“We have teachers in the classroom now who aren’t artists themselves,” Shafer said, “so even if you wanted to add an art component, well, you can’t because there is no time. So, where is our next generation of artists going to come from?”

Any artist of any medium can say, without question, that the earlier a child is exposed to an art the better.

“There is still some art at the high school level,” Shafer said, “but now that is often the first experience a child has in getting any art education, and that is ludicrous.”

The council is currently preparing for its annual student art show, which comes to the Santa Maria Public Library’s Shepard Hall. The council collects artwork from teachers throughout the community, highlighting the works of the young artists. The exhibition will run from March 7 through 28, and will include juried awards given to some of the participants, who may win some scholarship money for their talents.

“We see the Student Art Show as a way of encouraging arts in the classroom and to help build up that self-confidence,” Shafer said. “To have kids come and see their work side by side with other works is an amazing confidence builder and it builds a sense of pride, and I don’t think you get that from taking a test.”

Confidence and self-esteem notwithstanding, the arts also promote abstract thought and help deal with abstract ideas that bleed over into the “standard” classroom.

“I try to continually work in age-appropriate math concepts into my dance classes,” said dance instructor Rippy. “We work on counting rhythm and things like that. It’s just different ways for the children to learn, and it shows them that you do need those concepts in life, not just the classroom.”

Many students who find themselves despondent in math and science classes may be looking forward to their arts class because of the chance to engage in a creative endeavor without even knowing they’re improving their abilities in the classes they aren’t as passionate about.

“That’s why attendance increases when there is art education in a school,” Shafer said, “because there is something that is now attracting the otherwise unreachable student.”

Students also learn how to build skills and a sense of discipline through the arts. A continually worsening problem among Millennials is the lack of a skill, professional or otherwise.

“I hope my classes inspire them to not just try one art, but to try a lot of different things in life,” Rippy said. “Dance has allowed me to choose my career, it has kept me exercising and feeling healthy, it has helped me financially support my family, so it has been helpful in my life all over.”

Many art classes require collaboration among students. Teamwork skills are revered highly in the workplace and, with a lack in arts funding, more and more students are missing out on opportunities to learn more about themselves and how they interact with their peers.

“I think for kids, if they become self-aware through an art, and are comfortable in their own skin, then as an adult they exude confidence, and they understand themselves a little bit more,” Rippy said.

There have also been studies that conclude the involvement in a creative endeavor such as an art can help longevity and relieve stress. Musical ability, for instance, has been linked to a lower probability of having dementia in old age. And, of course, arts such as dance ensure health through regular aerobic exercise.

“The entire art form is beneficial for your health,” Rippy said. “You become self-aware when you are dancing, so your posture improves, and you become stronger, like any athlete.”

And for people who may think they have a child who’s an athlete, but no artist, some arts can help with that as well. Alice Shaw Elementary School fourth grader and student of Rippy, Karlee Cullen, can attest to that.

“I play soccer and softball,” she said. “Dance, well, like, it gives you better movement with the ball.”

Joining the effort

Any member of the community can become involved in making more art happen at a nearby school. Donating to any local organization dedicated to keeping art in the classroom—whether time, resources, or money—is a huge help.

“We are currently looking for a permanent location to teach out of,” Rubalcava said. “We always have an ear open for someone who will house us permanently.”

OCAF is also presenting its annual GALA event in April at the Santa Maria Country Club. The fundraising event features dinner, auctions, and live entertainment, as well as showcases of student-made art.

Of course, the beginning of any child’s education—art or otherwise—begins at home. Parental involvement is a huge factor in getting art in schools.

“I think every parent, at least on parent-teacher night, should let their voice be heard,” Shafer said. “I think they should go to school board meetings and say, ‘We need art education for the full development of our children.’"

Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at

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