On the SOTA Arts Proposition in San Francisco – Rethinking Arts Equity

This essay is a comment on the the recent proposal, In Support of Access, Equity and Diversity in the Arts at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and Throughout SFUSD” by Commissioner Rachel Norton and Commissioner Matt Haney, by the SFUSD that was passed unanimously. I find it unfortunate that it passed unanimously as disagreeing about things is what makes the end product a lot better. But the title of the proposition is one of those political maneuvers that happens so often these days. Name it something that everyone can rally around but have the actual action items be a bit weak and not get to the root of problems. Of course everyone is for “Access, Equity and Diversity in the Arts.” If you are not, it is political suicide. Just think of Clear Skies Act of 2003 by George Bush which really did not have a lot to do with air pollution. I have great respect for Congresswoman Barbara Lee who does not just flow with the pack.

If you want to read the actual proposal, you can download it here: In Support of Access, Equity and Diversity in the Arts at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and Throughout SFUSD” Commissioner Rachel Norton and Commissioner Matt Haney


Passed by unanimous vote, the “In Support of Access, Equity and Diversity in the Arts at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and Throughout SFUSD” is an interesting attempt to remedy San Francisco’s school system engrained problem of an uneven school quality through out the district. In particular it singles out the arts and SOTA, but this problem goes way beyond the access to arts education. The problem has to do with the actual enrollment process in SFUSD.

In the 1970s there must have been school busing in San Francisco; sending poor kids across town to the nice school further west and vice-verse. Now in SFUSD there is a “choice” system, which means any student can apply to any school within the District. This I remember being called OER ( Open Enrollment Registration). http://portal.sfusd.edu/apps/departments/educational_placement/HistoryStudentAssignment.pdf

This gives students and parents the ability to choose what school a child will attend. Sounds great!… right? Now I can send my kid to one of those nice schools in a neighborhood with all those fancy houses. Every parent in San Francisco has gone through this process and for people outside of San Francisco, it is often a stressful thing and results in intense discussions between parents taking care of kids at playgrounds and social gatherings. But why do we even do this sort of enrollment process with school choice in the first place? By the very concept, it is saying that one school is better than the other. What often happens is parents who spend a lot of energy advocating for their children get into the better schools. If you want to get rid of inequities in SFUSD, get rid of school choice. Be diligent in making sure there is equity in all the schools from kindergarten onward.

Why this is important for not only equity but the environment and traffic. Have you ever noticed how light the traffic is in town on certain weekdays? This is because when public school is on a holiday there are literally thousands of less cars of parents driving there kids off to school across town. Young kids is San Francisco rarely go to their neighborhood school. This means they are strapped into the back seat with their breakfast cereal and carted off across town to Clarendon or Miraloma or one of the “good” schools. Does that sound like equity? To me, that sounds like we have a class of the privileged and one that gets the dregs. This all becomes compounded. These “good” schools then have PTA’s that raise a lot of money that is for extra programs for their school – things like art and music and field trips and gardening projects. The less desirable schools will valiantly try to raise funds but not to the point of actually creating “artist in residency” programs.

Why does inequity continue? Often, the elementary school years in a family’s life are incredibly formative. Families, kids and parents make very strong bonds during this time. Families at this time are incredibly busy simply living life. But for the society as a whole this process of school choice actually engrains and deepens the education inequities. If you want to address inequities in the SFUSD, start at the source – get rid of school choice and bring quality education to all schools. Lift up the the schools in the east part of town with more resources and the best teachers.

How School Choice Does not Address the issue of Inequity
Just look at these images of the school ranking by greatschools.org and you can see that there is an institutionalized racism in the quality of schools by neighborhood.




So if you live in Hunters Point, the Bay View or even the now trendy Mission and want to go to one of the “good” schools, head West young man and just hope that you have a parent who has been advocating for you and a car to schlep you across town. Otherwise, if you live in the barrio, you will be sent to your local school that scores a 1 or 2 and you can forget about those free piano lessons and cool art classes. By making the schools in the east part of town better, you will lift up the entire neighborhood.

Two things in the Resolution that Are Good
There are two things about the resolution that are good. One of the main aspects of the resolution is to create a summer program for students from less advantaged neighborhoods, so that they can get more arts “training.” I am not sure why you need a proposition to make this happen but so be it. This is a great idea and it has always amazed me that this approach has been lacking. If you want to increase the overall citizenship and keep people from going to jail, the arts does truly change lives and engage people in creative ventures and create more well-rounded people. But this should not be in anyway dependent on SOTA. It is just a good idea.

The other aspect that I like is the idea of increasing transparency in the audition process. There are many departments at SOTA and the process of auditioning is often convoluted. Sometimes very talented kids are asked to re-auditon not because they are good enough but simply to challenge their commitment and desire to be at the school. This seems disingenuous and childish. Often times extremely talent and motivated kids do not get into SOTA because of a difference of genre. If SOTA mission is to be a conservatory of European art, that is a problem. We now live in the New World in America, so lets be a bit more embracing of our own cultures. Let’s have some self respect.

Race and SOTA
I have had two children attend SOTA during various times in their high school journeys. While SOTA is 37% Caucasian in both departments that my kids participated in, it was obvious that the directors looked at each applicant with an understanding that all kids do not have the same advantages. There were students who where “people of color” accepted into the theater and guitar programs that had no prior experience but are simply very talented and had the desire and drive. The directors and people auditioning could see this and they got in.

Now look at the racial mix of another prestigious high school, Lowell, where the majority of students are Asian. Is that something to be upset about? Having public high schools that accept students based on merit is a slippery slope that will always lead to controversy.

But Why is There An Arts School Anyway?
The concept of an arts school as a pre-professional training is actually not such a great idea. Most high schools use to have pre-professional technical training in other subjects – classes in woodworking, auto mechanics and sewing but those have pretty much disappeared. The concept that there is one school that focuses on pre-professional training in the arts seems odd. Why isn’t there a school that has pre-professional training in say other blue collar trades?

But the problem with having an arts high school in San Francisco is that it makes it so all the other high schools have truly dismal performing arts programs. Anyone who is good at say the violin or singing or dance will end up at SOTA. Because of this talent drain, all the other high schools then end up having performing arts groups that are actually much worse than some of the middle schools. This is truly embarrassing and I have the utmost respect for music teachers in these disadvantaged schools. It is tragic. Balboa High School has produced some great musicians – Wayne Wallace, John Calloway and Gary Flores to name a few I know and now the band program is almost non-existent. It has no momentum.

In high school, the goal of arts education should not be to produce the next Broadway star or the next Picasso. The goal of arts education in high school should be so that all students have access to the arts so that they may live an enriched life with a broad appreciation and understanding of the arts. Playing musical instruments. Throwing pots. Learning about painting all contribute to a more intelligent, well-rounded citizen. If they end up pursuing the arts as a career, they can go down that treacherous road after they graduate.

2 Replies to “On the SOTA Arts Proposition in San Francisco – Rethinking Arts Equity”

  1. Hi Paul – just stumbled on this trying to understand the recent kerfuffle at SOTA – and what was actually meant by “equity” – a term used by BOE members without distinct examples. I agree with so many of your points – esp with school choice. Hope that one day school members will have the guts to eliminate it at the elementary and middle school level. I am not sure I agree re the arts “drain” in favor of SOTA. Lowell, Wash and Lincoln have some great teachers and programs! Not every kid wants go to SOTA.

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