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Arts Flourish in SF Public Schools

Mike Ege | May 11, 2017 | Bay City Beacon

Original article

The 2017 SFUSD Arts Festival is an annual event that showcases the best in student creativity from our public schools, which has become an oasis for public arts education in a nation where it often goes underfunded. Below are photos of student art from the festival and the amazing teachers, artists, and supporters who help it make all happen.

While living in an internment camp as teenager with thousands of other Japanese-Americans during World War II, artist Ruth Asawa learned that the only true security available in life was to go ahead and “do what one wanted by choice.” It was that life lesson that propelled her into a life of art, activism, and education. Ruth Asawa’s legacy still thrives in San Francisco’s public school system.   

A culmination of that legacy will be SFUSD’s new Arts Center, a grand vision that will be made real when it opens in 2022, thanks to the work of Asawa, Asawa’s family, the school district, educators, and San Francisco voters. That work was celebrated at the school district's Arts Festival held over last week at the Asian Art Museum.

Among those honored at the festival’s Dream Catcher awards was Susan Stauter, the District’s Artistic Director Emeritus (here with Tom DeCaigny, the City’s Director of Cultural Affairs) and whose work with Asawa was instrumental in drafting the SFUSD Arts Education Master Plan. The Master Plan laid the foundation for the Center. 

A former English and drama teacher as well as actor and playwright, Stauter became involved with the District while working as Conservatory Director at ACT.  Already volunteering in the 1990s, Ruth Asawa approached her to do more. “She told me that I was ‘a real hot pepper,’ and that I was really needed back in education.”  

Stauter’s contribution to Asawa's vision can be summed up in her favorite word: Propinquity. It was important from the start that the Center be close to the City’s existing arts resources. 135 Van Ness Avenue is just a short walk to the Opera House, the San Francisco Ballet and Symphony Hall, the Asian Art Museum, SF Jazz, and other facilities. “It’s really about using the arts to teach everything,” Stauter said.

Donn Harris (above, congratulating students on their performance at the Festival reception) serves as Executive Director for the new Arts Center, and is firmly committed to Asawa's vision. Harris brings his theaters arts background together with his experience serving as principal at Raoul Wallenberg High School. Harris also served as principal of the School of the Arts at its previous location on the McAteer High School campus. 

Last decade, outgoing Oakland mayor Jerry Brown approached Harris to work on the arts program in his district. He eventually becoming director of the Oakland School of the Arts. “That was a very hectic time, because I basically ended up for a time running three schools,” said Harris. "It taught me a lot about delegating and managing from afar.”  

Harris sees the Master Plan as being instrumental in making the Arts Center materialize.  “The idea of moving the School of the Arts downtown was around before the plan, but we needed the master plan to drive it from a strategic perspective.  It also gave us a way to ensure that kids in other schools and other grade levels are part of the overall vision.  We want to build up the existing programs in the district so that they’ll be ready to use the center...we really believe that this is the birthright of these kids.”

San Francisco’s voters and parents have made major commitments to the preservation of arts education in public schools. "When we started, we polled the community, and parents were very vocal in their overwhelming support for arts education,” Stauter said. 

That support has been clearly expressed in San Francisco elections: measures such as 2004’s proposition H, 2014’s proposition C, and 2016’s proposition A, all passed by wide margins.  They ensured the viability of the District’s Public Education Enrichment Fund as well as new bond funds of to rebuild existing facilities, including for the Arts Center - the new home of the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.

San Francisco’s commitment stands as a shining exception to the relative nationwide decline in public arts education since the 1990s. 

Susan Stauter recalls:  “Ruth once told me, ‘My family were gardeners. After you water the plants one time you don’t just walk away, you have to keep doing it.’ And the arts water the soul."

Page updated on 05/11/17